Tag Archives: Anti-Slavery

Richard Cohen, Thomas Jefferson, and the Legacy of White Privilege in America

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Even his beard is white.

Richard Cohen, columnist for the Washington Post, understands something. He understands that white people have it rough. Or, at least they think that they have it rough. Some white people think that they’re losing their traditional privileges as the default ruling demographic in America. Their ensuing anger has, of late, once again lit the age-old fuse of white grievance in the United States, and numerous media outlets have spilled plenty of real and electronic ink trying to access the implications of this anger on American culture.

Richard Cohen is, like me, a white person, and he wants to understand a particular brand of grievance that motivates other white people and manifests most potently in the form of that drooling, reactionary blob of grammatically challenged rage, the Tea Party. In a recent column, Cohen pissed off a large chunk of humanity by attributing Tea Party rage not to racism, but to fear of change. Despite devoting portions of his column to mocking Tea Party rodeo clowns like Sarah Palin, many readers saw a particular paragraph in Cohen’s column as evidence of the author’s apparent sympathy for conservative white cultural dominance. The offending paragraph claimed that:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Now, Cohen has had some nasty bouts of foot-in-mouth disease in the (recent) past. This is the same guy who, earlier this month, claimed to have just learned that American slavery “was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks,” but was, in fact, “a lifetime’s condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children.” That’s right, Cohen just figured this out in 2013, and only after watching Steve McQueen’s film “12 Years a Slave,” because book-larnin’ is hard work.

But seriously, Cohen’s column stirred up a whole mess of anger because it appeared to reveal a stunning obtuseness on his part about the changing demographic face of America. Its been over sixty years since the end of legal segregation, yet Cohen admits that some Americans still have a “gag-reflex” when confronted with an interracial couple. Moreover, Cohen described the Tea Party as a group with “conventional” views, which, by default, seemed to suggest that non-Tea Partiers hold “unconventional” views. Cohen himself may or may not hold these views, though his history of writing oversimplified, bone-headed columns on the subject of race suggest that the former is possible. Plenty of people, for example, have labeled Cohen an “unreconstructed bigot” and a “racist.” But whatever Cohen’s own views, his column was, poor choice of words notwithstanding, an accurate description of Tea Party rage and the extremely potent source that fuels that rage: white privilege.

Simply dismissing Cohen as a good ole’ fashioned racist is not a particularly helpful way of discussing the kind of “indirect racism” (yeah, I just made up that term right now) that fuels modern white privilege. Liberals who call conservatives outright racists tend to get massive amounts of pushback from people aghast at being lumped together with the most theatrical and well-known symbols of American bigotry, such as the Old Confederacy, the Ku Klux Klan, and the southern lynch mob. Thus, the cycle merely repeats: liberals accuse conservatives of being racists, conservatives accuse liberals of playing the “race card;” rinse, wash, repeat.

The kind of indirect racism that animates the Tea Party, however, is less about outright hatred based on mere skin color (though it is a legacy of that idea) and more about how the truly domineering racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bequeathed the legacy of white privilege to modern-day Americans. For American whites, cultural, political, and economic dominance became common to the point of it being second-nature.

Let’s unpack that idea a bit further, shall we? There’s mounds of literature on the concept of white privilege, but let’s go with a straightforward definition: white privilege means that society affords you preferential treatment because you are white. Historian Linda Faye Williams helpfully expands on this idea in her book The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America. Faye Williams writes that white privilege constitutes situations in which “whites display a sense of entitlement and make claims to social status and economic advantages, actively struggling to maintain both these privileges and their sense of themselves as superior.”*

In addition, white privilege tends to blind its benefactors to the very existence of their privilege. As Faye Williams notes, for many whites, “‘racism’ is a problem belonging to people of color, not to whites.”* Those who perceive their whiteness as the default, “normal” setting, and, by extension, equate whiteness with normality, often get defensive when others point out how such a stance could lead to the normalization of white racial dominance.

But, of course, such a normalization of white racial dominance is exactly what happened for much of U.S. history. Because the America was a nation paradoxically founded on the principles of equality and racial slavery, every one of its major historical events — from constitutional debates over taxation, to geographical expansion, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement, to welfare reform — have, in some way, involved debates over the how the constructs of race afforded benefits to whites at the expense of non-whites.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Thomas Jefferson. Wearing a coat like that was totally a sign of privilege.

Perhaps no single figure better encapsulates the reckoning with the consequences of white privilege than the undisputed Grand Poobah of American Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson. So hallowed a figure is Jefferson in American culture that even his biographers — who should know better — are nonetheless loathe to criticize the man for fear that recognition of Jefferson’s basic human faults would somehow negate his inherent genius and monumental accomplishments. The debate over Jefferson’s faults is at its most contentious when it comes to his views on slavery and race. Jefferson was, after all, an immensely wealthy slaveholding planter, but he also wrote about the detrimental aspects of slavery as an institution, most famously in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1788). Such writings have led many historians to claim that Jefferson was, in one form or another, anti-slavery.

However, as legal historian Paul Finkelman notes in his article “Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Jefferson’s reservations about slavery hinged less on concerns for the enslaved, and more on concerns about how slavery as an institution affected his status as a privileged white slaveholder. As evidence for this interpretation, Finkelman cites Jefferson’s famous statement about slavery: “[W]e have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”* Historians have traditionally interpreted this statement as a fear of slave revolts, but Finkelman observes that the “self-preservation” to which Jefferson alluded could also refer to his personal fortune. The labor of his slaves afforded Jefferson the good life, making the thought of losing that labor downright unpalatable.

Finkleman describes Jefferson as “compulsively acquisitive.” Indeed, on one trip to France, Jefferson  bought over 60 oil paintings, over 40 luxury chairs, 7 busts by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, multiple full-length, gilt-framed mirrors, 4 marble-topped tables, and a vast assortment of ‘items of personal luxury.’* For Jefferson, Finkelman writes, “the wolf may also have been the wolf of gluttony and greed.” Indeed, slavery gave Jefferson his lavish lifestyle, and though he may not have liked being dependent on slaves, “he did not dislike it enough to anything about it.”* Jefferson could own slaves because he was a white man and his slaves were black, and the wealth generated by his slaves allowed Jefferson to live an aristocratic life.

No wonder he couldn’t let the wolf go: slavery was predicated on the concept of white privilege — that whites were superior and blacks inferior. Jefferson was a great man, but a man nonetheless, and those men (or women) placed into positions of power by the normalization of dominance over others are seldom in a rush to give up such a privileged status.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha' we do.

Got white privilege, America? You bectha’ we do.

Jefferson’s struggles with the moral implications of white privilege echo in the contemporary musings of people like Richard Cohen, who run into trouble when they casually brush off the type of indirect racism created by centuries of American white privilege. To be sure, the Tea Party types about whom Cohen writes are not racist in the same vein as the cross-burning Klansmen or the angry lynch mobs of decades past. Rather, like Jefferson and millions of whites before them, segments of the Tea Party have been simmering in the soup of white privilege for so long that they don’t even recognize that an earlier form of racial dominance helped make the base of that soup. Thus, you don’t need to be a flaming racist to defend cultural norms that were forged in a far more racist past.

American conservatives genuinely fear the consequences of losing their white privilege. Slavery is obviously no longer the issue, but slavery’s legacy has, as Linda Faye Williams writes, long resulted in the “unequal allocation of educational resources, substantial insider networks that funnel good jobs largely to whites, and social policies that deliver more generous benefits to whites.”* These are the modern fruits of white privilege.

It’s no coincidence that, according to a recent Democracy Corps study, the Republican Party’s Tea Party base “are very conscious of being white in a country with growing minorities. Their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.” Just as Jefferson feared losing the white privilege that created the luxurious life of an eighteenth-century planter, the modern Tea Party fears losing the white privilege that has long directed the benefits of social programs and political power disproportionately into the hands of American whites at the expense of non-white minorities. Richard Cohen, I think, understands this fear, but he also, on some level, identifies with it, which helps explain the befuddlement that he and others express when charged with racism. To paraphrase a particularly plain-spoken white guy, “It’s the whiteness, stupid.”

* See Linda Faye Williams, The Constraint of Race: Legacies of White Skin Privilege in America (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), 10-11.

* See Paul Finkelman, “Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (April, 1994): 205.

Advertisements

Why Third Parties Just Don’t Work in America

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of "People's Party," also know as the "Populists." They didn't last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

A 1904 Campaign Poster for candidate Tom Watson of the “People’s Party,” also know as the “Populists.” They didn’t last long, though some of their policies did. Also, Watson turned into a xenophobic, racist nutball.

Why can’t the United States muster the will to create a viable third-party to challenge the calcified, shame-immune, institutional bureaucrat incubation pits known respectively as the Democrats and the Republicans? Throughout American history many idealistic souls have longed for a third-party alternative to the ensconced two-party system, and, despite a few fleeting exceptions, they have been sorely disappointed. The American tradition of mass democratic politics has historically combined with structural limitations within the country’s governing institutions to make third-party movements akin to knocking on Mordor’s gates and hoping to be let in with a wink and a smile. Yes, one does not simply start a third-party in America.

These facts, however, have never stopped Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions from advocating for a third-party. Over at Time’s Swampland blog, Joe Klein is merely the most recent Prospero calling into the political tempest for a third-party to wreck onto American shores and shake up the system for the better, and he seems to think such a party is possible in 2014. Citing the candidacy of New Age guru Marianne Williamson, who is running to unseat California’s long time incumbant Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman, Klein sees a third-party image on the horizon that may prove to be more than a mirage:

Could Williamson be the harbinger of a wave of Independent candidacies in 2014? Are people so sick of the two existing parties that they’re ready to go shopping for something new? “We’re seeing this all over our polling,” says Peter Hart, who does surveys for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. “People are sick of the status quo: 60% believe that the entire Congress should be replaced. They’re looking for alternatives.”

Klein is right to point out that Americans really seem to want a third-party. The Gallup poll he cites led the Washington Times to recently declare the rise of “third-party fever,” claiming that more than ever, Americans want more political options. I have no doubt that they do. Heck, I’m one of them who wants to move beyond the bifurcated nest of incumbant morlocks currently clogging up the political pipes. But ideals do not a reality make. Americans have always wanted more party representation, but, in general, they never get it. Klein himself recognizes this fact, admitting that “I’ve been skeptical about 3rd parties in the past. The best of them–the Populists, Ross Perot (at least when it came to budgetary matters)–tend to have their hot ideas co-opted by the Democrats or Republicans.” As he notes, the idea of “co-option” explains America’s historical dearth of third parties, and why that dearth will likely continue.

America’s small “r” republican tradition of mass politics — especially since the early nineteenth century — created an environment through which various political platforms, ideas, and concepts could be introduced freely into public discourse and, therefore, be easily co-opted and absorbed by different political players. When taken in tandem with the basic mechanics of how the American political system is structured, you get a recipe for two-party blandness. As Sociologist G. William Domhoff meticulously explains, America’s  political system is based on districts and pluralities, rather than on mere proportional representation. This limits the ability of multiple parties to compete for representation and discourages the type of party coalitions common in parliamentary democracies. The election of American presidents via a direct national vote, as opposed to the parliamentary system of a victorious party choosing its leader, further dilutes third-party options.

Americans wishing to change the system to reflect proportional representation, Domhoff writes, will run smack into Article V of the Constitution, which states emphatically that “no State, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.” Americans’ need to ensure that less populous states receive equal — often greater — representational clout means that a parliamentary system and, by extension, greater party variety, isn’t going to happen.

But, as I already noted, it isn’t just the American system’s design that has constantly thwarted third parties; it’s also its culture of mass democratic politics that has allowed third parties ideas to be absorbed, co-opted, and reclaimed in a system that already favors big-tent style political organizations, not fractured micro-movements. The fate of two famous American parties, the Whigs and the Populists, demonstrate why third-party movements just don’t gain much traction in a political culture as incestuous and consolidation-prone as that of the United States.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor whon the presidency.

A Whig Party banner from 1848. Candidate Zachary Taylor Whon the presidency.

The Whigs were not a proper third-party; in fact, they were, for a while, one of the two dominant American political parties, but their demise shows the power of American party consolidation. The Whigs’ political lineage dated back to Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists and reached its zenith under the stewardship of compromise-prone Kentucky politico Henry Clay. Under   Clay’s “American System,” the Whigs touted a nationalistic platform via federally subsidized infrastructure development, a national bank, and economic protectionism. For their troubles, they elected four presidents and popularized a political theory that remains a vital part of contemporary American discourse. But two primary developments: the debate over slavery and increased immigration, eventually killed off the Whigs by the mid-1850s and made way for the Republican Party’s rise to national prominence.

Originally a national party with strength in the North and the South, the Whigs began to fracture over the issue of slavery in the territories. Since the passing of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Whigs had gradually been splintering along pro and anti-slavery lines. This divide came to a head following the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise line and opened up the western territories for possible pro-slavery settlement under the banner of popular sovereignty. Northern anti-slavery Whigs opposed Kansas-Nebraska, while southern pro-slavery Whigs, incensed at their northern party brethren’s stance on slavery, migrated to the Democratic Party.

Immigration, especially that of Irish Catholics who, by the 1840s, were arriving in waves to the northeast’s major population centers, also contributed to the Whigs’ demise. Fears of a devious “Papist” invasion in the still largely Protestant U.S. gave rise to the Nativist, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. The Know Nothings threatened to attract disgruntled Whigs infected with the fever of nativism until another incipient party, the Republicans, used fears of the southern “Slave Power” to create a coalition of anti-slavery Whigs, Nativists, and Democrats that finally locked the door on the Whig mausoleum. As historian William Gienapp writes in his classic book The Origins of the Republican Party, “like the Slave Power, the Catholic Church seemed a threat to liberty, and Republican rhetoric often linked the two by warning of the dangers they posed to cherished American ideals.”* Thus, the Republican Party was able to co-opt multiple, fractured political movements into an effective big-tent party that exists to this day.

In contrast to the Whigs, the People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were a true third-party. The Populist movement grew out of late nineteenth century discontent among southern and western farmers who complained of the high cost of agricultural equipment, the practices of corrupt railroad companies that overcharged small farmers while coddling big businesses, and monetary policies that encouraged endless debt. In order to lobby the state to address their grievances, an alliance of farmers formed the Populist Party in 1892. Their “Omaha Plan” called for inflationary currency, government backed subtreasuries, a graduated income tax, and state ownership of the railroads.

The Populists filled a vacuum that challenged the entrenched power of the Republicans and Democrats, but eventually fell prey to co-option by those very same parties. The white supremacist Democratic Party played on southern white farmers’ fears of racial integration to discourage any Populist alliance between blacks and whites. This racial demagoguery drew many farmers out of the Populist fold and into the Democrats’ bigoted arms. One of the most famous Populists, for example, Georgia’s Tom Watson, advocated racial cooperation before succumbing to a delusional fit of bile-soaked race-baiting, leaving a legacy so rotten that a statue of him currently residing outside the Georgia state capital is now being removed.

In addition, the Populists were internally divided over whether or not they should fuse with the two powerful major parties, who held the political clout to pass laws. The issue of “fusionism” eventually killed the Populist Party. In 1896, Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan co-opted much of their platform before losing to Republican William McKinley. While the Populist movement was dead by the turn-of-the-century, their legacy survived in the form of the federal income tax, a national bank, federal regulation of railroads and farm credit, and the direct election of senators — all former Populist positions that the two major parties eventually co-opted and made law. The Populists, like other American third-party movements, couldn’t survive being absorbed by the major party sponges.

Ross Perot, independent candidate for president in 1992.

Ross Perot: The independent candidate for president in 1992 who just couldn’t finish.

The co-option legacy that killed the Whigs and the Populists has resurfaced whenever third parties threaten to challenge the two-party system in America. Diminutive Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the independent presidential candidate who garnered 18.9 percent of the national popular vote in 1992 by offering up voters a country-fried mish-mash of liberal and conservative positions, eventually watched Democrats and Republicans co-opt his anti-debt, balanced budget platform. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader siphoned just enough votes away from human flag pole Al Gore to help put George W. Bush in the White House. This scared the hell out of Nader’s Liberal supporters, thereby pushing them back into the corporate Democratic Party fold.

U.S. history shows that while there’s always potential for third-party movements to gain varying levels of steam among an electorate fed up with only two political options, the mass marketplace of American political discourse has consistently drawn third-party ideas into the major parties’ gaping maws. As the Whigs, Populists, and Ross Perot discovered, when combined with a political system that is structurally hostile to multiple party growth, American mass democracy creates a perfect storm that assures the continued dominance of the very thing that most Americans say they just can’t stand. So dream all you want folks; in the end, if you’re a Tea Partyier, you’ll vote Republican, and if you’re a bleeding heart Hippie, you’ll vote Democratic. It’s the American way, unfortunately.

* William Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 372.

The Bible Says it…Right? American Politicians, Scripture, and the Legacy of the Slavery Debate

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-Hell) quotes the Bible to justify slashing food assistance programs. Photo by AP.

This week, the dignified monkey cage and lobotomy experiment laboratory known as the House of Representatives, which, thanks to gerrymandering during the 2010 midterm elections, is dominated by the Republican Party, voted to slash $39 billion in food stamps from the Federal budget. While such a move is not unknown for a party that may, or may not, get thrills from shooting kittens and orphans out of skeet launchers, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) justified the vote using what he, and a good many other Americans consider to be, the ultimate authority on everything from policy decisions to haircuts: the bible. Quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10 from the English Standard Bible, Cramer stated that “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”

Cramer’s use of the Thessalonians passage to justify not feeding the poor was prompted by one of his constituents posting a biblical passage on the Congressman’s Facebook page that would seem to advocate helping those in need. Citing Matthew  25:36-43, the constituent highlighted the following verses:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

So who’s right on this one? Depending on your politics, the answer might seem simple, but in terms of the historical use of the bible in U.S. politics, the answer isn’t so clear-cut. Cramer was following a grand American tradition in which elected politicos use the bible to justify policy — only to have different bible verses launched right back at them from political foes. The use of the bible is not a trivial thing in U.S. politics: it played a major role in the most important social, political, and economic debate in American history, the debate over slavery.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the sectional debate over slavery drove the country further and further towards Civil War, religious abolitionists invoked the bible to condemn what they believed to be heretical uses of scripture by southern pro-slavery politicians and religious leaders. In the 1830s, new anti-slavery movements emerged out of the flames of religious revivals that swept the American northeast, creating a reform-minded evangelical culture in the North that began attacking slavery as un-biblical. Christian abolitionists argued that slavery encouraged sin among both master and slave. Slavery corrupted masters because it drove them to amass overwhelming power, which promoted pride, lust (not limited to slaves) and violence that was antithetical to Christian life. Slavery also corrupted those in bondage by consigning them to the mercy of corrupt masters and leaving them ignorant of God. Abolitionists claimed that slavery was contrary to biblical notions of love, peace, and respect for your neighbors as articulated in the Sermon on the Mount and other like passages.

Abolitionists, however, tended to invoke the bible in more general terms rather than citing individual passages, and when they did discuss specific passages, they argued over issues of interpretation. Consider the introduction from Christian abolitionist George Bourne’s 1845 book A Condensed Anti-Slavery Bible Argument, which you can read in full online at Documenting the American South:

THE belief was long nearly universal, and is yet very general throughout the Christian world, that the Scriptures do, to some extent, justify human slavery, as practised in this country. The object of the following chapters is to controvert this belief, and to prove that it is false and heretical, as well as dangerous and destructive to human happiness; that this belief is founded entirely on perversions of the true meaning of certain passages in the Scriptures, and is entirely contrary to the spirit of the divine volume, the letter of which condemns the practice with as much severity as it did that of any other crime. The following argument is presented for the calm and prayerful consideration of all Christians, both in the North and in the South.

Bourne’s claims that scriptures do not, in fact, sanction slavery, and that southerners who claimed otherwise used “perversions of the true meaning of certain passages in the Scriptures” could be easily mocked by southern pro-slavery apologists. As Rachel Held Evans notes in a blog post dealing with biblical pro-slavery defences:

[T]he fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed.

Held Evans references the work of historians who have long pointed out that pro-slavery Christians kind of had a point. Scholars like Eugene and Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, for example, note in their massive book The Mind of the Master Class that southern, Christian, pro-slavery apologists like the Rev. Thornton Stringfellow frankly had more biblical cannon fodder in their rhetorical war against Christian abolitionists. It was easier for pro-slavery Christians to invoke specific scriptural passages to defend slavery than it was for abolitionists to use the bible to condemn slavery.

Thortnon Stringfellow, Virginia Reverend and author of biblical pro-slavery tracts.

Thornton Stringfellow, Virginia Reverend and author of biblical pro-slavery tracts.

So what does this have to do with modern politicians using the bible to defend political actions today? Well, you can use the bible to justify just about anything. This often comes as somewhat uncomfortable news to the general public, but as biblical historians like New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman have long observed, the bible is wrought with contradictions; the results of centuries of human writers trying to alter and shape the finished bible to support varying — often contradictory — agendas. This means that if you look hard enough, you can find biblical support for slavery and slashing food stamp-funding.

If the bible can be used to justify slavery, an institution long consigned to the dustbin of moral abominations, then perhaps American politicians should think twice, or, at least exercise some nuance, when trotting out the good book to sanctify their pet legislations. You may or may not agree with Kevin Cramer that the bible justifies cutting food stamps, but wherever you stand on that — or on any other issue — at least be aware that someone else is already pointing to a bible passage that will supposedly prove you’re wrong. And you probably ARE wrong. The problem is, they’re probably wrong too: the bible says so.