This piece ran as an op/ed in July, 2021.
On so many levels, the big right-wing outrage these days about the assertion that racism has been a powerful force in American history and society is such a crazy thing! (And so ugly.)
No honest student of our nation’s history could deny that racism has played a major role in the American story.
We could start with the central trauma of American history: the Civil War.
That terrible conflict was the culmination of the nation’s struggling for decades over the same issue: whether the domain of the slave-based economy would expand.
(Prior crises over that issue had culminated in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. That issue was then at the heart of the struggles over Texas and the Mexican War. Then after the next time that conflict over slavery’s expansion was contained briefly by the Compromise of 1850, the battle continued through the confrontations escalated throughout the decade leading to the election of a President determined to prevent the slave-system from expanding further.
It was then that the Southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. “And the war came.”)
That slave-based economy was founded on the notion that it was right for white people to own black people, and treat them as a special kind of livestock. I.e. that is right for people to be rendered, because of their race, into mere property, not endowed by their Creator – like white people — with inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Confederacy, at its birth, declared that the foundations of “our new government” rest upon “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
In other words, the Confederacy’s motivating “great truth” – which amounts to the explicitly racist notion of “White Supremacy” — was at the heart of the nation’s greatest crisis.
But even that huge a part of the American story is but one piece of the much larger picture of racism’s importance to our history. A sampling:
- The racial aspects of the concept of “manifest destiny,” justifying the forceful seizure of the ancestral lands of Native American peoples;
- The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (passed, in part, to maintain white “racial purity”);
- The forced incarceration of Japanese-Americans (most of them U.S. citizens) after the outbreak of World War II;
- The oppressive structures used — during the “Jim Crow” era, following the Civil War — to keep blacks powerless and terrorized into submission (utilizing several thousands of lynchings of black men by white men);
- Redlining in northern real estate markets to keep blacks concentrated in black neighborhoods.
- The intense battles, after World War II, to replace the Jim Crow regime with full rights for black citizens (including the right to vote).
- The need felt by black parents, but not white parents, to give their children “the Talk” so that they will be able to come out of an encounter with police alive.
The list could be expanded almost indefinitely.
How are we to understand the American right taking umbrage at people saying what is so obviously true and important?
Is there any way — when people deny the painful, generations-long experience of so many Americans – that the denial of that experience is not in itself an expression of that same racial hostility the deniers refuse to acknowledge?
That denial seems also a defiant refusal to permit our nation to make progress against racism. By compelling America to focus on the foolish question, “Has racism been an impactful force in the American Story?” the carriers of these racist passions prevent our asking the important question:
“How can we take power away from the force of racism?”
Which is what a sane society would strive to do, because racism always makes things worse in the world, not better—more suffering, more strife, less love, less ability to work together to accomplish good things.
As if all that ugliness were not enough, there’s the ugliness of the use to which this denial is put:
Evidently, the Republicans are fashioning this denial into a political weapon, having apparently decided that stoking racial hostilities is an effective way to get their base activated and motivated to get to the polls in 2022 and restore Republican control of the Congress.
By getting their base riled up with racial hostilities, these Republican leaders can distract their supporters from the fact that the Republicans have had nothing to offer, for some time, to advance our national progress or the common good. I.e. can distract them from considering how
- when the Republicans controlled all branches of government, they had nothing more they wanted to do after they passed– in 2017 — a tax-giveaway to the billionaires and giant corporations.
- the Republicans — at their 2020 National Convention – put forward a “Platform” that was, basically, “Whatever Trump says.” Utterly unprecedented in its standing for nothing.
- now, in 2021, the Republicans declare themselves “100% focused” on blocking even popular actions—i.e. focused on making their opponent fail, rather than helping the nation to succeed.
Pumping up the racial battle – by absurdly denying the importance of racism — continues the Republicans’ destructive strategy of national division rather than national progress.
Division. Lies. Conflict. Squandered opportunities to make America a more perfect Union.
Months ago, I defined “Evil” this way: “A coherent force that consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness.”