Tag Archives: 19th century

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.


Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

This 1870 cartoon by Thomas Nast depicts the Pope and his minions eyeing America from Rome.

The United States is, in theory, a secular nation. Despite the occasional verbal hat tips to a supernatural watchmaker by some of the more deistic leaning founders, all of America’s founding documents are secular: they embrace no official state religion of any kind and maintain a strict separation between church and state. This political structure has, in turn, made the U.S. one of the most religiously pluralistic societies in the world. After all, having  freedom of religion ensures that all religions can be practiced openly.

In practical terms, however, for much of its history the U.S. has been a majority Christian Protestant nation. The first European settlers (with the exception of some pesky Spanish Catholics in Florida and out west) to America were Protestants, and a Protestant religious tradition has shaped much of American history. And, of course, the violent, sectarian brouhaha that is Christian history ensured that a predominantly Protestant United States would also have its fair share of Anti-Catholic sentiment.

Modern anti-Catholicism in the U.S. has nowhere near the strength and popularity that it enjoyed in its 19th and early 20th century heyday, as Catholics have long since been accepted as full-fledged members of American society. Nonetheless, there remains a certain ambiguity about Catholicism in America; particularly among the country’s WASPY political and economic elites, who have embraced and accepted some aspects of Catholicism while remaining leery of some of its more left-wing traditions.

A case in point: conservative radio pustule Rush Limbaugh — a guy known for spewing more toxic gas into the atmosphere than your average Anaerobic lagoon — recently accused Pope Francis of espousing “pure Marxism.” And what did the Pope do to incur El Rushbo’s wrath? Well, in an 84-page apostalic exhortation that defined the platform of his papacy, the current vicar of St. Peter had the gold-gilded gonads to critique the excesses of globalized, unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism as a “new tyranny” that has created vast inequality and human suffering throughout the world. “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded,” the Pope noted, critiquing a market culture that “deadens” humanity via the promise of shallow material acquisition and leads to a “globalization of indifference” towards the poor.

As he is want to do, Limbaugh blew a major gasket in the wake of the Pope’s remarks. Rushbo not only accused Pope Francis of being an unrelenting Marxist, but then went on a standard tirade about capitalism’s amoral “invisible hand.” Rush did make a salient point, however, by pointing out the Catholic Church’s immense wealth, and how that wealth has, for centuries, been accrued through market means.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

Radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh. He actively tries to be a tool.

But Rush also made a telling observation, suggesting that Catholicism, for all of its “mainstream” success in the U.S., still remains a potential threat to American society by virtue of its collectivist tradition. “There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism.  It’s been around for quite a while. That’s what makes this, to me, really remarkable,” Limbaugh said. Rushbo was echoing an age-old fear of Catholic collectivism that has emanated at various times from both the Right and the Left in U.S. history; a fear that the Catholic Church, as a hierarchical organization, was at best indifferent to, and at worst hostile to, America’s individualist, small “r” republican virtues.

The fear of the Catholic Church’s allegedly totalitarian collectivist designs has been a powerful strain in American culture, which has long been dominated by a Protestant, individualist ideal that can be traced all the way back to Martin Luther’s idea of “sola scriptura.” Luther espoused the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” who need not consult a professional clergy for spiritual advice. The Protestant notion of a personal, individual relationship with God proved eminently compatible with republican ideals of individual liberty free from a meddling, theocratic state — of which the Catholic Church has historically embodied in the eyes of its critics.

Age-old Protestant fears of a multi-tentacled papist hierarchy wriggling its way into American life manifested most prominently in the rise of the Know Nothing movement in the 19th century. The Know Nothings, whom I discussed in an earlier post, were a political party that coalesced around the Protestant American cultural backlash against a new wave of Irish and German Catholic immigrants who came to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. The Know Nothings, or Nativists, originated as secretive, fraternal societies before organizing into a political party in 1854.

The Know Nothings believed that Catholic traditions were antithetical to American liberal democracy. They decried Catholic immigrants as nefarious moles sent by Rome to infiltrate American society and reshape it in the papist image. A theocratic organization with a central figurehead in Rome that was controlled by a vast clerical hierarchy could never acclimate to a republican society in which free individuals exercised their individual right to self-government — or so the Nativists thought. As historian Elizabeth Fenton observes, “in the emergent United States…the concept of individual freedom…hinged on an anti-Catholic discourse that presented Protestantism as the guarantor of religious liberty…in a plural nation.”* The importance Americans placed on “private individualism” rendered the seeming collectivist hierarchy of the Catholic Church an inherent threat to American culture. Indeed, unlike the president, the Pope’s only term limit was death.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled "foreign influence" referred to those wily Papists.

A Know Nothing flag. The oddly spelled “foreign influence” referred to those wily Papists.

Of course, contrary to popular depictions, the Catholic Church has never been an entirely monolithic institution. Both politically and theologically, it’s been historically wracked by internal factions that have embraced the hard right and the hard left of the political and economic spectrums. The multitude of official documents advocating the importance of social justice attest to the Church’s leftist strain, while the support given to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere by the church’s more conservative elements reminds us that Catholics are as divided over politics as the rest of society. It’s the Catholic Church’s more leftist elements, however, underpinned by its inherently collectivist structure, that have more often than not been a source of worry for American Protestants.

The case of Father Charles Coughlin is among the best examples of how anti-Catholic fears have manifested via the fear of socialist infiltration — a tradition Rush Limbaugh is keeping alive by accusing Pope Francis of Marxism. Charles Coughlin was a Roman Catholic priest who rose to prominence during the Great Depression by championing social justice in a thoroughly demagogic fashion. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1891, Coughlin became the pastor of the small Royal Oak parish in suburban Detroit in 1926. Inflamed by persistent anti-Catholicism in America (the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on his church lawn) and the economic turmoil of the Depression, Coughlin took to preaching his sermons via a nationally syndicated Sunday radio show. In his radio sermons Coughlin demanded silver-based inflation, railed against the gold standard and international bankers, and called for the nationalization of the American banking system.*

Coughlin was a charismatic Catholic left-wing agitator-turned-right-wing fascist who was not above using demagoguery to achieve his vision of social justice.  An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Coughlin soon turned on the president when FDR failed to nationalize the banks and pursued anti-inflationary monetary policies. Feeling burned by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, in November 1934, Coughlin formed a new party, the National Union for Social Justice, which campaigned for the rights of labor and the nationalization of key industries. Coughlin’s proclivity towards embracing nutty conspiracy theories, however, proved his undoing. He seemingly railed against everything; denouncing ‘communists,’ ‘plutocrats,’ and FDR’s alleged collusion with international bankers. Coughlin also peppered his broadcasts with vile anti-semitic rhetoric, accusing an international Jewish cabal of controlling the world banking system.*

During the late 1930s, amidst the outbreak of World War II, Coughlin took an ideological turn to embrace the right-wing fascist dogma then en vogue in Europe. He embraced Mussolini-style authoritarianism as the only way to cure the world of the ills that capitalism and democracy had wrought. By 1940, his radio program was off the air, but he continued to publish his magazine, Social Justice. After Pearl Harbor, however, Coughlin outright blamed the Jews for starting the war, leading the FBI to raid his church and U.S. authorities to forbid the postal service from disseminating his magazine. When the archbishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease and desist all non-pastoral activities in 1942, the agitator-priest relented and retired from public life.*

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Father Charles Coughlin railing against stuff in Cleveland, Ohio, 1936.

Whether he was spouting left-wing or right-wing demagoguery, Coughlin always framed his ideas through the prism of a collectivist hierarchy; whether in the form of a central government-instigated redistribution of wealth or via an authoritarian system that squelched individual rights in the name of a greater, fascist whole. In this respect, Coughlin was an extreme example of the type of papist proclivity towards hierarchy that had long worried American non-Catholics. The ignominious Canadian-born priest never spoke for most of St. Peter’s flock, of course, but his demagoguery fed into already established concerns about the threat Catholicism supposedly posed to American republicanism. Heck, Rush Limbaugh might as well have invoked Coughlin when he accused Pope Francis of Marxism.

While American Catholics have come a long way since the days of being publicly reviled by Know Nothings and having an insane Detroit priest act as their national spokesman, the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure is still a source of unease when that structure is invoked to critique the worst excesses of free-market capitalism. Whether those critique’s come in the form of Coughlin-style demagogic rants or Pope Francis’ elegant exhortation, the reaction has historically been one of hesitation — if not outright disgust — by non-Catholics who invoke, however unconsciously, a history of Anti-Catholic prejudice rooted in fears of the Church’s theocratic hierarchy. In America, old habits die hard.

* See Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 6.

* See David M. Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 227-37.

* See Charles E. Coughlin Biography, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia.

Abe Lincoln, cross-dressing and the American way: The real history of Thanksgiving


Its American Thanksgiving today, so to celebrate, I wrote a piece for Salon. Go check it out!

The “Knockout” Game, Race, and Fears of Urban Crime in American History

A standard cultural depiction of the type of riotous crime that erupted in 19th century American cities.

A  lineup of scary, urban, 19th century criminals, from Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002).

Crime and cities have always been close bedfellows in America. The sense that cities, in contrast to the countryside, are havens of delinquency and debauchery populated by the worst kinds of morally deprived low-lifes is a longstanding notion in American culture that remains potent in the twenty-first century, even when urban crime rates are at their lowest point in some 40 years. But whatever the current level of crime in American cities, the denser populations of urban areas, when combined with the natural human proclivity towards delinquent behavior, has ensured that the cultural meme of “cities as havens of vice” has remained perennially popular.

The latest manifestation of urban crime fears is the viral panic over the supposed “knockout” trend that is currently sweeping the internet. Reports have emerged from cities such as Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia and others of the growing popularity of a depraved new game called “knockout” among groups of urban teenagers. As the New York Times reported, this game allegedly involves “young assailants…randomly picking unlucky targets and trying to knock them out with just one punch.” Essentially, the knockout game amounts to little more than a random, dangerous assault, since no reports of actual theft have emerged from these attacks.

Knocking someone out cold can actually be done with little excessive strength provided that the attacker clubs their unsuspecting victim in just the right spot on the head, and some of these attacks have been fatal. A homeless man in New Jersey named Ralph Santiago died after being struck from behind by a group of teens, and other victims have been seriously injured. Disparate reports of similar attacks in different U.S. cities have spread through the media, igniting a heated debate over whether these attacks are an organized criminal trend spread through social media or simply unrelated incidents of random urban assault. The New York Times, for example, questions if the viral spread of these attacks has created a modern-day urban myth, while other publications such as Slate, the Daily Beast, and USA Today have variously brushed off the knockout game as a “phony panic” lacking in sufficient data to identify a trend.

So what’s the deal here? Is the knockout game a real, disturbing national urban crime epidemic? Or is it little more than overhyped fear in which pattern-seeking humans have pieced together similar news items detailing outbreaks of the kind of spontaneous assaults that sometimes happen in big cities? In all likelihood, the answer is a potent mix of both. The knockout game does exist, but the idea that it’s a widespread, coordinated trend has all of the hallmarks of the type of urban crime myth that has long been popular in American culture.

Further, as Emma Roller of Slate notes, the fact that most of the knockout incident appear to have perpetrated by black teenagers against white victims has lent a decidedly racist tone to the whole story. Indeed, the cultural idea of the dangerous, urban black criminal is a longstanding American trope that goes all the way back to the Civil War. Of course, the usual right-wing race-baiters have used the knockout attacks as an excuse to promulgate fears of race war. They know they’re stoking old race fires, and they get paid to shovel in the coal.

Since the dawn of the Jacksonian era in the early nineteenth century, which saw the beginning of America’s long transformation from a primarily rural to a predominantly urban society, the city and its vices have been a source of potent social worry. As urban historian Paul Boyer observes, early American social reformers feared the specter of “urban decay” that sprung from cities’ dynamic demographic structure. “From the early 1800s on,” Boyer writes, “observers commented on the impersonality and bustle of urban existence, the lack of human warmth, the heedless jostlings of the free-floating human atoms that endlessly surged through the streets.”* The city’s dynamic structure led concerned reformers to conclude that urban life was a “volitile…deviation from a familiar norm” of the close-knit, morally upright, church-going, neighborly setting of the traditional American small rural town.

In response to concerns about drunkenness, crime, and general depravity in American cities, a collection of various reform organizations — including Bible and Tract societies, charity groups, the Anti-Saloon League, settlement houses, and the YMCA — sought to remake the social structure of urban spaces in the image of the morally righteous small town. These reform organizations, Boyer notes, promulgated an idea, still prevalent in contemporary American society, that cities were “seething cauldrons of licentious, brutalized creatures, contemptuous of morality, responsible to no one, owning no master but the lustful dictates of their own wicked flesh.”*

Americans today continue to view cities as havens of crime inhabited by “brutalized creatures” that are in need of a serious moral compass. Moreover, race continues to play a large role in shaping perceptions of urban social decay and violence. As the Village Voice reported in 2011, the more uncouth elements of the right-wing media complex — including websites like Urban Grounds and the ever loathsome Drudge Report — have made a cottage industry out of blaming African-American populations for crime in cities while extolling small-town (white) values as antidotes to urban (black) ills. The right-wing fringe repeats a common theme that there is something inherent in “black culture” or the “black race” that predisposes African-American urban youths towards criminal behavior like the knockout game.

Such a charge amounts to little more than pseudoscientific racial reductionism — an idea best left in the heap of past discarded social theories. Now, dismissing right-wing race-baiting does not mean that African-Americans can’t be criminals, of course. To put it bluntly: it isn’t that black people don’t commit crimes; rather, they don’t commit crimes because they’re black. Yet the perception that urban black Americans are predisposed towards crime is historically woven into the fabric of American culture.

In his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad traces the linkage of blackness with crime back to the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In a nation where slavery was dead but white supremacy remained potent, “African American freedom fueled far-ranging anxieties among many white Americans” that, in turn, materialized in the idea of black criminality. The notion of black criminality spread via “national debates about the fundamental racial and cultural differences between African Americans and native-born whites and European immigrants.”* The idea that crimes committed by individual blacks are somehow representative of an urban “black community” stems from this period.

Americans have been primed to view images like this as the face of urban crime, but believe me, the gangs of white boys in 19th Philadelphia and New York would take offence at the idea that only black kids can be scary.

Americans have been primed to view images like this as the face of urban crime, but believe me, the gangs of white boys in 19th Philadelphia and New York would take offence at the idea that only black kids can be scary.

During the late nineteenth century, white Northerners and Southerners reconciled their post-war differences by emphasizing their shared whiteness in contrast to a newly freed black population that whites believed was prone to criminal behavior. In this sense, the idea of black urban criminality became a circular, self-fulfilling belief that “became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.”* Indeed, because whites believed that black were natural criminals, blacks became criminals in whites’ minds, and the belief that blacks were criminals justified racially discriminatory laws and social customs.

The nineteenth century association of blackness with crime, Gibran Muhammad writes, remains a powerful idea in twenty-first century American culture, hence the fear of the “black thug” driven knockout game. This process of “racial criminalization” resulted in the “stigmatization of crime as ‘black’ and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure.”* To understand how this type of thinking works, put on your prejudiced cap just for a moment and ask yourself: “if white kids were perpetrating the knockout game, would I describe them as “white thugs” or just “thugs?” Of course, the idea that “white thugs” could somehow represent some hypothetical community of white people is absurd, but “racial criminalization” has resulted in violence committed by “black thugs” being taken as indicative of African-American culture. In America, white people get to be individuals, but every black person still has to represent a “black community.”

Of course, the idea that cities are more dangerous now, populated as they are with African-Americans, is historical wishful thinking. Heck, nineteenth-century American cities were infinitely more dangerous — or at least were perceived as such by contemporary observers — because they were rife with criminality, and the face of this criminality was usually white. Consider a few reports from nineteenth century Philadelphia.

Following the murder of a pedestrian, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a December 1, 1864 report on the “Carnival of Crime” in the city at the hands of a “gang of ruffians” that “embraced every crime known to the criminal laws.” Assaults and murder were daily occurrences in he City of Brotherly Love. In September 1864, a “gang of boys” attacked an elderly woman, dragged her along the ground and broke her leg. In March 1865, a pedestrian was “badly beaten” by a “gang of rowdies” without cause. In August 1869, a night watchman was “brutally beaten” by a “band of assassins” to the point that his recovery was “doubtful.”* I could go on, but suffice to say that cities like Philly were filled with violent criminals, and those criminals were, more often than not, white.

Things got so bad in Philadelphia that a February 1870 editorial lamented the loss of the city to “hordes of ruffians” who committed acts of violence day and night with impunity. “Crime of every sort has grown frightfully familiar,” the editorial fretted, “murders are done in our most public thoroughfares and the assassins are let go free. Hanging for murder is as much a thing of the past in Philadelphia as in New York.” In nearly all of these reports, the criminals were listed as white, suggesting that cities like Philadelphia were always dangerous, and that African-Americans, shockingly, were not the only ethnic group involved in violent crime.

A standard depcition of the type of riotous crime that erupted in 19th century American cities.

A standard depiction of the type of riotous crime that erupted in 19th century American cities. Yep, those are white guys in that picture.

New York, like Philly, also had is share of violent crime issues. In his 1872 book The Nether Side of New York, the journalist Edward Crapsey described a Big Apple overwhelmed by immigration, poverty, and corruption that became “the prey of thievery and debauchery.”* Similarly, in 1886, William Howe and A.H. Hummel, the authors of Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations, warned that “in a great city like New York, the germs of evil in human life are developed into the rankest maturity.” Howe and Hummel described a New York infested since the early nineteenth century with murderous gangs of “toughs” and “rowdies” that wrecked havoc in areas like the notorious “Five Points,” a depraved neighborhood depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York. Those gangs, by the way, were white. Talk about your angry “white thugs,” right?!*

Historically, Americans have long feared cities as being havens of violent criminal debauchery. The fear of urban crime goes back to the antebellum era, when the transition from a primarily rural to a primarily urban country unleashed widespread concerns that the cities were places where traditional moral values go to die. On one level, such a fear was justified: as the above sources note, cities did have lots of violent crime. But the greater population density of urban areas when compared to small towns lent credence to the idea that cities were inherently crime-prone. In fact, urban crime stemmed from the same dark side of human nature that effected every American, whether they were country bumpkins or metropolitan street rats.

Moreover, despite an American cultural tendency to associate urban criminality with blackness that has resurfaced in light of the alleged knockout trend, both whites and blacks have long contributed to urban crime. The idea that urban black criminals speak for the general “black community” is a ridiculous notion; as ridiculous as saying that rural white meth dealers in “America’s Heartland” represent the general “white community” or that Michael Corleone represents all Italian-Americans.

So if you find yourself viewing videos of the knockout game and wanting to decry the supposed degeneracy of “black thugs,” step back for a moment and consider whether crime actually has a color. Historically, urban crime has been as multi-cultural and multi-colored as American cities themselves. Recognizing that the propensity for violence lies in all humans will go a long way towards reducing crime throughout the U.S., whether that crime be urban, rural, or everything in between.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 4-5.*

* See Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 4.

* See the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The Carnival of Crime,” December 1, 1864. “Youthful Depravity,” September 30, 1864. “Attacked,” March 6, 1865. “Another Midnight Assault Near Chestnut Street,” August 2, 1869. “The Contest Between Order and Disorder,” February 3, 1870.

* See Edward Crapsey, The Nether Side of New York (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1872), 9.

* See William Howe and A.H. Hummel, Danger! A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations (Buffalo: The Courier Co., 1886), iv, 6-11.


The real history of the “war on Christmas”

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commericalization of Christmas in the form of alluminum mass-produced Christmas trees.

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commercialization of Christmas in the form of aluminum, mass-produced Christmas trees. In an attempt to push back against the sanctification of mass consumption, Charlie Brown opts for a small wooden tree, and gets called a “blockhead” for his troubles.

If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus. 

Horatio Alger’s Long Shadow: Blaming the Poor in American History

Upon viewing this sign,  Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to

Upon viewing this sign, Jesus Christ, a guy who once told people to “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” was reported to have metaphorically spun in his empty grave.

Have you ever been poor? Have you ever lived in a state of poverty where the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, shelter, and income security barely existed? If not, then count yourself lucky. Really lucky. Because being poor is awful. It’s not just damaging to every aspect of your physical health and well-being; it’s also psychologically damaging in that being poor tends to reinforce a sense of despair that leads to viewing poverty as an inescapable trap. In a column for Pacific Standard, Paul Hiebert recently reported on a new Harvard study that explains how poverty reinforces itself:

Being broke is tough. Not only does a lack of money restrict what you can do, but now your survival also involves an endless amount of compromise over the most basic of goods and services…it’s like browsing the Internet while your computer downloads a file, ad infinitum. It’s impossible to stop dwelling on unpaid utility bills when you have absolutely no idea how you’re going to pay them.

Yet, for all of the physical and mental misery that poverty causes, a huge chunk of Americans continue to blame the poor for being poor, with some particularly repugnant Sarlaccs even going so far as to claim that poor people enjoy being poor. This type of thinking is not only morally vacuous, it’s also contrary to significant evidence that a host of structural problems, including income inequality and the devaluing of wages, are to blame for the existence of poverty in the United States.

Yet blaming the poor for their condition remains a central tool in the arsenal of American conservatives like pestilent boil and spewer of septic radio sludge Rush Limbaugh, who routinely claims that the poor simply “don’t want to work.” A variant of this theme echoes at the top levels of government. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, for example, justifies his plans to shred the American safety net by claiming that “it lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency” and  “drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” Ryan, a guy who got a big boost early on from Social Security and has amassed a fair share of government subsidies, never provides evidence for this assertion.

On the one hand, its easy to characterize the “blame the poor” trend as yet another example of conservatives’ perpetual aversion to nuance in favor of black-and-white thinking. But the idea that the poor are poor due to their own moral failings has a long history and is deeply entrenched in American culture. The reason for the “blame the poor” response is rooted in the persistence of “rags to riches,” or “bootstrap” mythology, which postulates that America is the land of political and economic freedom in which even the poorest and humblest individual can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieve economic success. In this vision of American society, those who fail to succeed have only themselves to blame, since America afforded them every opportunity for success in exchange provided they work hard.

No American made more hay out of the “bootstrap” myth than the nineteenth-century author Horatio Alger, Jr. During the Gilded Age, Alger wrote hundreds of cheap, juvenile novels that espoused the “rags to riches” theme. Alger’s works, especially his most famous book, Ragged Dick (1868), were fictional accounts of young boys born into poverty who nonetheless achieved economic success in American society through a potent combination of hard work, determination, self-reliance, and an embracing of capitalist virtues. Alger’s novels were simplified depictions of individuals who achieved the American dream: the idea that because the U.S. eschewed the inherited wealth of Old Europe, hard work and self-reliance would ensure that even Americans from the humblest beginnings could achieve social and economic success — maybe even become president. Thus, Alger helped promulgate the myth of the “self-made man.”

Alger’s writings are painfully lacking in nuance, but they struck a chord with Gilded Age readers — and continue to indirectly influence contemporary Americans — because the cultural view of the United States as the “land of opportunity” is based, to a point, on historical truths. Especially in the nineteenth century, the U.S. did indeed provide much opportunity to both American-born citizens and immigrants from all over the world who took advantage of its dynamic capitalist system to achieve success.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

Horatio Alger, Jr. This guy has proven to be a major historical pain in the arse.

On the other hand, Alger’s depiction of the American dream was also stunningly simplistic to the point where he largely ignored the other realities of Gilded Age American life. These included the monopolistic practices of trust-forming big businesses that stifled competition, the rampant urban and rural poverty experienced by millions, and a thoroughly corrupted political system in which big business aligned itself with the state to crush labor rights and enact protectionist policies that mocked the concept of “free markets.” In an era when the rise of massive, vertically integrated and politically connected corporations threatened market competition and seemed on the verge of perpetuating a permanently impoverished laboring class, Horatio Alger’s “bootstrap” myth was more than just harmless fantasy, it also gave those with the most economic power an excuse to blame the poor for their condition.

The influence of the Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into the hands of tycoons who bought into Social Darwinist ideas about human society. Adopting a pseudo-scientific idea that, when taken to its logically illogical conclusion, nearly wiped out much of the human race, Social Darwinists wrongheadedly applied Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to human social organization. Thus, “intellectual” nitwits like Herbert Spencer (the mutton-chopped ogre who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” and about whom I wrote in an earlier post) claimed that capitalism was the perfect, organic system for separating the human wheat from the human chaff. The Alger “bootstrap” myth played right into Social Darwinists’ hands by providing a cultural template that explained in simple fashion why those who worked hard could succeed in America, and why those that failed to succeed simply didn’t work hard enough.

The steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, whose free-market hypocrisy I described in a an earlier blogpost, was among the most vociferous proponents of Social Darwinism via laissez-faire capitalism. But he often wrapped his paternalistic ideas in rhetoric that stressed the moral duties of businessmen to give back to their communities in the form of philanthropy. Carnegie’s support for philanthropy allowed him to maintain power over workers while simultaneously claiming that he was looking after their best interests. Implicit in his ideology was the idea of the capitalist marketplace as moral playing field: because he had lived the Alger dream, having risen from rags to riches as a Scottish immigrant to America, others who failed to do the same should not be rewarded with welfare that allegedly fueled idleness.

In his essay the Gospel of Wealth (1889), Carnegie claimed that the charge of the wealthy paternalist was to guide and look after his workers. The “duty of the man of wealth,” he wrote, was to act as the “mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they would or could do for themselves.” The paternalistic undertones of this quote are laid bare when you consider Carnegie’s hard-line anti-union stance and his obsessive desire to get the most out his workers for the least possible amount of pay. 

Carnegie believed that workers should have as little control over their own destinies as possible. Unions and higher wages threatened his power as a “superior” employer, which is why he preferred them to be beholden to “better” men like himself who had proved their worth via the marketplace. Implicit in Carnegie’s words is the idea of workers as men who failed Alger’s “bootstrap” test. Carnegie’s ideology was not lost on workers. In 1894, an anonymous “workman” published a brutally satirical response to Carnegie in a Pittsburgh labor paper:

Oh, Almighty Andrew Philanthropist Library Carnegie…Oh, lord and master, we love thee because you and other great masters of slaves favor combines and trusts to enslave and make paupers of us all. We love thee though our children are clothed in rags. We love thee though our wives . . .

Oh, master, we thank thee for all the free gifts you have given the public at the expense of your slaves. . . Oh, master, we need no protection, we need no liberty so long as we are under thy care. So we command ourselves to thy mercy and forevermore sing thy praise.

Carnegie’s union-busting and support for wage-slavery was “blame the poor” ideology in action. He had no trouble establishing libraries and donating musical instruments to the poor, but giving them agency over their own labor was another thing entirely. As Carnegie noted in the Gospel of Wealth, recognizing workers’ rights or giving out too much welfare risked enabling “lesser” members of the human race to promulgate their laziness. “Neither the individual nor the race is improved by alms-giving,” he noted, “those worthy of assistance…seldom require assistance. The really valuable men of the race never do, except in cases of accident or sudden change.” With those lines, Carnegie, ever the true Social Darwinist, claimed that “valuable” people didn’t need handouts and that the poor got what they deserved, a type of rhetoric that still thrives in contemporary American conservative circles.

Carnegie’s and other Gilded Age tycoons’ inflated sense of their own superiority as achievers in business often overshadowed the simplicity of Alger’s “bootstrap” ideal. As the satirical “workman’s” letter recognized, Carnegie and his ilk employed trusts and cartels for the purpose of establishing monopolistic capitalism that thwarted market competition via consolidation and price-fixing and exploited workers to the point where advancement on the job was often a pipe dream.

The worst of this bunch were the railroad barons who, in the 1870s, organized themselves into price-fixing cartels that divided up rail traffic amongst themselves and set freight rates. When this scheme collapsed in the 1880s, the railroad barons instead controlled competition by jointly constructing massive, but shoddy rail networks in order to drive smaller competitors out of business. This was, of course, the same group of industrialists who urged the poor to make it on their own by pulling up their bootstraps and competing in the American free market.

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

Conservatives have been blaming the the poor for being poor for a long time, right Newt?

The disconnect between the reality of structural hindrances to social and economic advancement and Horatio Alger’s myth of “bootstrap” advancement retains a pernicious influence on contemporary American society. As Time reported last year, the myth of “bootstrapping” continues to overshadow the growing difficulties of social mobility in the United States. Citing a Pew Research Study, Time’s Noliwe Rooks reported that:

Social mobility between the lowest levels of American society and the middle class is increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Specifically, the study found that while a large number of Americans (84 percent) have a higher family income than did their parents, those born at both the top and the bottom of the “income ladder” stay where they are from one generation to the next.

If Americans ever want to get serious about alleviating poverty, they’re going to have to seriously drop the outdated Horatio Alger “bootstrap” myth and recognize that while capitalism does indeed create wealth and provide a better standing of living for many people, it’s also a system created by humans that can be subjected to the worst human ideas. We’ve all met lazy people, but they do not represent the reality of the poor in America. Most of the poor in America are the working poor, whose hopes for social advancement have been steadily diminished by structural attacks on unions and wages, lack of flexibility with regards to health insurance, and the race-to-the-bottom style of twenty-first century globalization.

Yet, despite all of the structural issues contributing to income inequality and poverty, and despite the effects of the Great Recession, Horatio Alger keeps peering out from the closed curtains of the past, insisting that those faced with daunting unemployment pick themselves up by their bootstraps and just get a job already. The “bootstrap” myth resurfaces in criticisms of supposed millennial generation sloth, in Republican dismissals of alleged “lazy blacks” who don’t want to work, and, of course, in conservative claims that the “working poor” don’t exist. The clowns who lob such simplistic statements with gleeful abandon still subscribe to the Alger “bootstrap” myth, and, like the Gilded Age tycoons before them, they’re too concerned with consolidating the power of the ruling plutocracy to look beyond such black-and-white views. The only way to end the “blame the poor” trend is to kill Horatio Alger once and for all, which, as history has shown, is easier said than done.