Tag Archives: Ku Klux Klan

The Charleston Shooting and The Legacy of Racial Terrorism

The historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.

The historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC.

Nothing seems to define the absolute worst of 21st century America quite like a bitter white guy with a chip on his shoulder and a gun in his hand. Such was the case in Charleston, South Carolina, where a twenty-one year old, bowl-cut-sporting, would-be Grand Wizard named Dylann Storm Roof allegedly opened fire into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine people in cold blood.

Of course, it’s no surprise whatsoever that Roof appears to have ties to have white supremacist organizations, as a picture on his Facebook page shows the little tool posing like a scowling cherub on the cover of a crappy teenage metal band’s first self-produced EP while wearing the patches of Apartheid-era South Africa and the former white-dominated Rhodesia, now modern-day Zimbabwe. Reports from the Emanuel church claimed that just before he opened fire on parishioners, Root stated that, “I have to do it, you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

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Why You Can’t Separate The Confederate Flag from its History

An Army of Tennessee Confederate Battle Flag. This is image is historically linked to the preservation of slavery, no matter what other symbolisms later generations have attached to it.

An Army of Tennessee Confederate Battle Flag. This image is historically linked to the preservation of slavery, no matter what other meanings later generations have attached to it.

The Confederate battle flag inspires, shall we say, some passionate opinions among different groups of Americans. To a particularly weird contingent of neo-Confederate apologists, including the various branches of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), the flag symbolizes “Loving the South and defending its culture, symbols and heritage.” These groups go out of their way to separate the Rebel flag from its historical associations with slavery and racism and claim that the emblem merely represents their love of all-things Dixie. To other groups, however, especially African-Americans, the Confederate flag is a historic symbol that invokes the legacy of slavery and racism that defined the American South for generations.

So who’s in the right here? Does the Rebel flag today merely serve as a symbol for historically illiterate Bubbas to wave in the name of “Heritage, Not Hate?” Or, does the flag still symbolize slavery and racism — basically the two worst things about the Old South? The answer is both complicated and straightforward.

Yes, people of different generations have attached different meanings to the Confederate flag to the point where, on one hand, it’s now little more than a generic symbol for rebellion that fuels a decidedly tasteless bumper-sticker and bikini industry. But on the other hand, the Confederate flag emerged at a very specific point in American history. It served as the military emblem of an army whose government, the Confederate States of America, waged a treasonous war against the United States in the name of defending, upholding, and perpetuating racial slavery. This is the real history of the flag that makes many Americans (justifiably) uncomfortable, and its a history that will forever be linked to the stars and bars.

The flag’s historical association with slavery and racism has always made it a banner controversy (oh yeah, that pun was intended). Case-in-point: Talking Points Memo recently reported that students and alumni of Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia have signed a petition to bring back their stars and bars-clad “Rebel Man” mascot. The move has proved controversial, but proponents of bringing back the mascot claim that “The Rebel Man was never intended to embark racism or start any kind of political controversy, but only to represent our city’s history.”

Unfortunately, the history that “Rebel Man” is intended to represent is quite loaded: Richmond, Virginia served as the capital of the Confederacy after it was moved from Montgomery, Alabama in early 1861. Knowing this full-well, one Freeman High School student echoed a familiar (and tired) refrain when he claimed that, “Since Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, a Southern soldier really represents us as a school…This Rebel Man does not represent racism or slavery.”

The "White House" where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in Richmond, Virginia.

The “White House” where Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in Richmond, Virginia.

Of course, whether or not that student believes that Confederate imagery “does not represent racism or slavery,” the fact remains that the rebel flag and its associated symbolism historically represents a breakaway nation whose “cornerstone,” as explained by its vice-president, Alexander Stephens, was “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.” Based on this “cornerstone,” the majority of the slave-holding southern states formed the Confederate States of America in 1861 as an explicitly white-supremacist nation dedicated to defending the right to own black slaves.

And just how dedicated to slavery were the Confederate States of America, you ask? Well, consider the fact that the Confederate Constitution was, for all intents-and-purposes, a virtual carbon-copy of the American Constitution, but with a crucial difference: it had provisions clearly defending the right to preserve slavery. While it’s true that the American Constitution in its original form was essentially a pro-slavery document (it did have that whole three-fifths clause, after all), the framers of the Confederate Constitution went out of their way to make sure that NOBODY on earth could EVER deprive the South’s of its hard-working and EXTREMELY under-paid labor force.

Article I Section 9(4) of the Confederate Constitution reads that, “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” That’s pretty straightforward, innit? But the fun doesn’t stop there! Article IV Section 3(3) reads that, “The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and… In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.”

You get all that? Basically, the Confederate Constitution not only protected slavery, but it also protected the right to perpetually extend slavery into any new Confederate territories FOR-EVER. Don’t believe me? Then read the dang thing for yourself! These Rebels were in the slavery business for the long haul, folks, and this is the uncomfortable fact that some contemporary Americans want to gloss over when they claim that you can wave the flag of a nation dedicated to slavery and white supremacy while simultaneously denying that said flag has anything to do with slavery and white supremacy. Sorry, but it just doesn’t work like that.

There's a reason why these hooded clowns tend to wave the Confederate flag: they know its history.

There’s a reason why these hooded clowns tend to wave the Confederate flag: they know its history.

But debates over the appropriateness of displaying the Rebel flag in public settings aren’t likely to go away any time soon. As historian John Coski writes in The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (a book I referenced in an earlier post about the flag’s legacy), “Even though the battle flag was the banner of a people striving to break away from the Union and protect the institution of slavery, those people were Americans.”* This means that the Confederate flag is also an American symbol, and it stirs high emotions precisely because it invokes the negative issues of slavery, racism, and inequality that are supposed to be contrary to American ideals but for which hundreds-of-thousands of Americans gave their lives in battle.

The Rebel flag makes us uncomfortable because it symbolizes a time in history when half the country took the worst aspects of American society and tried to form a new nation dedicated to those aspects. But it’s too easy to blame only the South here; after all, throughout the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, racism and white supremacy were American values, not merely southern ones. Even though the Union won the Civil War, the Federal government wasn’t exactly committed to full-on, post-war racial equality, and the northern states didn’t exactly become havens of racial tolerance in the decades following the Confederacy’s demise.

Thus, the Rebel flag is controversial because it reminds Americans of a racist set of values that were once widely held; the South was just more honest about holding them. Nevertheless, the fact of widespread American historical racism is no excuse to blindly claim that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with racism and slavery. History is clear about the flag’s unfortunate connotations, and it’s a history that you can’t separate from the stars and bars. There’s plenty of other symbols of southern pride that ALL southerners — and all Americans — can get behind (like sweet tea; damn that stuff’s good), so let’s leave the Confederate flag where it belongs: to history.

* See John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 293.

American Nation-Building and the Endless Fight in Iraq

Insurgents ride triumphantly as Iraq descends into more ethnic-fueled chaos.

Insurgents ride triumphantly as Iraq descends into more ethnic-fueled chaos. It’s all Obama’s fault, of course.

What in Sam Hill is going on in Iraq? Yeah, remember that country? It’s the one in the Middle-East that seems to be constantly riven with ethnic strife, religiously motivated terrorism, and a spectacularly corrupt government. Okay, I guess that really doesn’t nail it down, now does it? More specifically, Iraq is that Middle-Eastern country run by a former mustachioed dictator whom the United States used to support because we wanted his oil and didn’t give a damn about how his iron-fisted tactics made the phrase “human rights” into little more than a punchline. Wait — that doesn’t narrow it down either. Okay, let’s try this one last time: Iraq is the country that President George H.W. Bush kicked out of Kuwait in 1991 in the name of freedom oil and President George W. Bush invaded in 2003 because it was supposedly a threat to freedom oil.

Bush-the-Younger’s dunder-headed excursion into Iraq became the Biggest Mistake in American Military History. Now, Iraq is once again descending into chaos — and no one knows what in the Hell to do about it. In recent weeks, ethnic and religious strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq has exploded into civil war-like conditions (seriously, how many times have we heard a variation of that headline?) and the epic finger-pointing has begun.

As Mother Jones reports, a Sunni Muslim Al Qaeda-linked group known as The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — which grew out of Iraq’s Al Qaeda faction that sprouted up in the wake of the U.S. invasion — has been stirring up all kinds of badness. In the last year or so, the ISIS has joined forces with other goon squads such as the local Sunni militants and former Baath officials from Saddam’s old ruling party to launch deadly “dirty war” style insurgent strikes on key enemy targets — especially the Shiite-led Iraqi government. The ISIS has taken control of northern Iraq, and they look to cause more nastiness now that the U.S. has been withdrawing it’s troops from the country.

The Republicans, of course, are blaming Obama for the chaos in Iraq. South Carolina senator/ventriloquist dummy Lindsay Graham warned that “If Baghdad falls, if the central government falls, a disaster awaits us of monumental proportions.” Alongside Graham’s blubbering, former losing presidential candidate, and Montgomery Burns doppelgänger Mitt Romney whined that “what has happened in Iraq and what we’re seeing with ISIS is a good deal predictable for the failure of Obama to react.”

And really, this Republican criticism makes sense. I mean, remember back in 2003 when President Obama told the country that Iraq had lots and lots of Weapons of Mass-Destruction (WMDs) and that if the U.S. didn’t invade the country and drop a ton of freedom bombs, democracy grenades, and liberty missiles, Saddam Hussein would invade Flyoverville, Indiana and make every chicken-wing eating, cheap beer-guzzling, freedom-inhaling American Cletus swear eternal allegiance to the Muslim devil and turn every church into an Islamic terrorist training camp? Yeah, I don’t remember that either. But I do remember how American conservatives, led by then-president George W. Bush, lied about WMDs in Iraq, and I remember how these same chicken hawks spent the last ten years trying to cover their asses as Operation Iraqi Freedom spawned enough quagmires to drown a sauropod herd.

Insurgant Iraqi forces line up in an orderly fashiion to eagerly learn about American conceptions of freedom.

insurgent Iraqi forces line up in an orderly fashion to eagerly learn about American conceptions of freedom. Photo by AP.

So, of course, the American right-wing is now calling for yet more troops to be sent back into Iraq. Led by John “The Surge” McCain (R-AZ), these Republican proponents of still further military intervention in the Mesopotamian Quagmire of Doom are scratching an age-old American itch: the desire to nation-build. But the thing is, the U.S. has engaged in plenty of nation-building experiments in the past during which American armed forces have been deployed to rebuild war-torn countries into stable democracies and/or dictatorships, depending on how well one or the other served American interests. And these attempts at nation-building have, with few exceptions, failed.

From the Philippines to El Salvador; from the defeated Confederate South to Vietnam; from Korea to Afghanistan to Iraq, the United States, drunk on a huge kegger of American-exceptionalism ale, has stumbled blindly out of other countries’ military and political quagmires, and like a barfly being ejected after last-call, they’ve usually left these places messier than when they arrived. This is because using the military as an apparatus through which to rebuild societies from the ground up is bound to fail. The American army, like all armies, is built to destroy things, not to rebuild them. When it’s been tasked with nation-building, the U.S. army has often found itself fighting what historian Russell Crandall calls “Dirty Wars,” in which U.S. forces have been pitted against irregular, insurgent forces who employ hit-and-run, guerilla-style attacks and bleed into the native population like ghosts — all with the end goal of expelling the invaders.

In his book America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror, Crandall takes a long view of America’s historical attempts to nation-build at home and abroad while trying to fight protracted dirty wars that have stymied such noble efforts. “What American leaders have forgotten at their peril is that, by definition, dirty wars are dirty,” Crandall writes, “civilians are disproportionately targeted, the line between combatant and innocent is often intentionally blurred, and there is a great temptation to ‘fight fire with fire’ against foes who refuse to play by the ‘rules’ of warfare.”* Crandall reminds us that America’s status as the (allegedly) world’s greatest democracy has usually hampered, rather than aided, its nation-building plans.

The U.S. likes to employ political rhetoric claiming that its nation-building efforts are being done for all the ‘right’ reasons, like spreading democracy, fighting terrorism, standing up for human rights, etc. All that’s well-and-good, but such idealistic stances are difficult to uphold in the face of relentless insurgent attacks that drive U.S. forces to get dirty and fight down in the guerilla mud. Nation-building fails because, beyond the dubious reasons for invading other countries in the name of freedom oil, when America fights dirty, it tends to overly rely on brute force that doesn’t help win the hearts and minds of the locals. Thus, as Crandall notes, “the outcomes of these wars has been nebulous, domestic support for them has been precarious, and in them American forces have committed atrocities.”* After all, it’s tough to convince a shell-shocked Iraqi that you bombed the shit out of his house and family in the name of “freedom,” and it’s tough to convince Americans citizens that they should keeping paying for these types of freedom bomb missions.

And the thing is, you’d think that Americans would know better at this point, but instead, these just keep on trucking, fueled by the hope that more troops, more bombs, and more targeted drone strikes will eventually convince people in a foreign land that American-style democracy is the greatest thing since craft beer. And why should the U.S. know better, you may ask? Because in the 1860s and 1870s, the American military tried — and failed — to rebuild a nation in its own backyard: the defeated Confederate South after the Civil War.

When the southern Confederacy surrendered to Union forces in 1865 after four brutal years of combat, American government and military officials were tasked with rebuilding a vast swath of U.S. territory — the South — that had been reduced to ruin during the conflict. This sounds simple enough, right? I mean, the Confederate South wasn’t Afghanistan; in 1861 it was still literally a part of the American nation, and not all of the southern states even seceded from the Union. But the ones that did secede found their world turned upside down in the wake of military defeat: much of their infrastructure was destroyed, tens-of-thousands of their men were dead, and, most significantly, their slaves were freed. And those freed slaves were bound to start agitating for, you know, political rights — and the South would have none of that.

Domestic terrorists groups like the White Leagues and teh Ku Klux Klan made the U.S. government's experiment with nation-building in the former Confederate South a rather difficult process.

Domestic terrorists groups like the White Leagues and the Ku Klux Klan made the U.S. government’s experiment with nation-building in the former Confederate South a rather difficult process.

In order to deal with the newly freed slaves and “reconstruct” the South back into the Union, the American government divided the South into five military districts occupied by U.S. troops, and it established a federal humanitarian aid agency, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — better-known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — to help aid the former slaves’ transition to freedom. But American military and civilian forces in the South soon found that the local yokels were restless: white southerners remind defiant in the face U.S. forces attempts to rebuild their society according to rules hammered out in Washington D.C., and they remained especially hostile towards any attempts to integrate newly freed African-Americans into southern society as the political and social equals of whites.

So southern whites organized into irregular bands of paramilitary insurgent groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Leagues, the Red Shirts and others. These domestic terrorist groups waged a campaign of political intimidation, property destruction, and murder against freed people and northern Republicans across the South. They usually attacked at night using guerilla tactics to burn houses and assault blacks and political opponents of the southern Democratic Party. During the daytime they melted back into the civilian population, which often tacitly, and sometimes openly, supported the white supremacist insurgents.

U.S. forces tried to squelch these terrorist groups, and sometimes they succeeded. But in the long run, tamping down on southern insurgent violence and enforcing the rights of freed blacks always meant more violence, more troops, more political will, and more money — with no end in sight. A weary northern government and public eventually soured on this seemingly endless dirty war and gave up on reconstructing the South. By the late 1870s, the old-line white supremacists — many of whom had fought in the Confederate armies — were back in control of Dixie. Thus, after the Civil War, American forces found themselves caught up in a long-running conflict with local and national elements that was driven by ethnic factionalism and power-struggles over how political and economic resources were to be reorganized and controlled following a destructive conflict. The more things change…the more Americans try to nation-build.

So as America’s right-wing noise machine bellows incessantly about once again sending in the military to restore peace to Iraq and other foreign quagmires, maybe, just maybe, they’ll take a step back and consider the numerous historical instances in which fighting dirty wars in the name of nation-building blew up in America’s face. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll carefully analyse the costs and benefits of U.S. military campaigns and determine that American forces are ill-equipped to serve as mediators in the face of long-held political, religious, and ethnic conflicts. And maybe, just maybe, someone will pay me to write this blog. But we can all hope, right?

* See Russell Crandall, America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 13.

Jonathan Chait and the Shadow of Race in the Obama Era

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as "race" that, at least scientifically, doesn't even exist.

Whether you voted for or against Barack Obama was in many ways dependent on a socially constructed concept known as “race.”

There’s an old adage that goes something like this: in America, everything is about race, even when race has nothing to do with it. Ever since the colonial era, Americans of all stripes have dealt with the race issue because it’s been a crucial element in determining what it means to be an American from day one. Race was, of course, the major factor that drove America’s original sin of slavery (it’s rumored that early drafts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence read: “All men are created equal, except for those dusky fellers picking my tobacco.) But long after slavery’s demise, race still lingers in American political discourse and, if you believe Jonathan Chait, race has been the defining theme of Barack Obama’s presidency.

In a simultaneously contentious, frustrating, and illuminating piece for the New Yorker, Chait performs some impressive mental gymnastics in order to argue that race — particularly the politics of white racial resentment towards African-Americans — is the core theme that has shaped modern conservatism while also arguing that liberals are wrong to call conservatives racists for opposing Barack Obama’s policies. You got that? Chait admits that “at the level of electoral campaign messaging, conservatism and white racial resentment are functionally identical,” but warns of “an increasing liberal tendency to define conservatism as a form of covert racial discrimination” that is both politically wrongheaded and factually untrue.

Plenty of otherwise like-minded commentators have taken Chait to the proverbial woodshed for his Charlie Brown-style wishy washiness on the race issue. Salon’s Joan Walsh, for example, chides Chait for pointing out recent Republican efforts to restrict minority voting rights and refusing to expand Medicaid — measures that disproportionately target black Americans — and then having the gall to chastise liberals for “mostly telling the truth about all of those things, while occasionally exaggerating it.” Meanwhile, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie characterizes Chait’s piece as “a story of mutual grievance between Americans on the left and right, with little interest in the lived experiences of racism from black Americans and other people of color.”

So is Chait wrong to worry about all characterizations of conservatism being reduced to mere anti-black (and anti-Latino) racial resentment? The short answer is “Yes;” the long answer is “No.” As has always been the case in American history, the issue of race is monumentally complicated, with multiple streams and rivers that flow into a much bigger — and much muddier — racial pool.

Chait is correct that being politically conservative in America doesn’t make you a racist in the most visceral, black-hating, pointed hood–donning sense, but he’s also wrong to claim that liberals start out with “a sound analysis of Republican racial animosity” but then extend this analysis into “paranoia.” This is why every issue in America comes down to race — even when it doesn’t.

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change...

Once upon a time, in the nineteenth century, the Democrats accused the Republicans of being the party that catered to black people. The more things change…

Allow me to explain a bit further. What Chait, and so many others before him, always seem to stumble on is defining what they mean when they use the term “racism.” In his book Racism: A Short History, the eminent historian George Fredrickson defines racism in both broad and specific terms. Generally, racism is “the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes.”* Specifically, however, racism differs from more standard human conflict via the crucial additions of difference and power. Together, these two components create “a mindset that regards ‘them’ as different from ‘us’ in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable.” Fredrickson writes that, “racism expresses itself in the practices, institutions, and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates.”* In other words, racism doesn’t just create racist individuals; it also creates racist societies.

Chait is looking for examples of conservatives playing the racist role, as defined by Fredrickson, by explicitly enacting practices that mark blacks as different from, and less powerful than, whites. Thus, what he’s really trying to pin down is to what extent the U.S. is, or isn’t, a racist society — one in which whites still actively discriminate against blacks. Liberals say that it is; conservatives say that it isn’t. The answer, however, is “yes:” the U.S. has been, and continues to be, a racist society. But — and this is crucial — the U.S. isn’t as racist as it was thirty, fifty, a hundred, or two-hundred years ago, and it’s getting less racist every year. The problem is that racism, being so entwined into the fabric of American society, won’t just disappear over night, and before it dies entirely, it devolves into a less-potent — but no less influential idea — which I call “racialism.”

I didn’t invent the term “racialism;” it’s been bandied about for years by various types of academics looking for a way to describe racially tinged ideas that didn’t seem to fit into the full-on “racist” category. For my purposes, racialism is the belief that racial differences exist, and it constitutes the various ways, both positive and negative, that Americans have tried to shape and influence social and political policies in accordance with that belief.

Here’s an example of how racialism differs from racism. Growing up in Northeast Ohio’s Rust Belt, I often heard a racially insensitive joke that went something like this: Q: “What’s the difference between a large pizza and a black man?” A: “The large pizza can feed a family of four.” Anyone whose ever paid attention to the American welfare debate knows why this joke is supposed to be “funny:” it invokes long-running stereotypes depicting blacks as lazy, shiftless, and unwilling to work for themselves. Those stereotypes, in turn, go all the way back to the era of slavery, when whites deemed blacks as “inferior” and in need of the guiding light of white control. In modern political parlance, the “lazy black” idea fueled Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” story and continues to drive conservative hostility to welfare programs that allegedly benefit blacks at whites’ expense.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Not all conservatives are racists, but then again some are.

Any white person I knew who either told or heard that joke would deny that they were racists, and in terms of the popular understanding of what racists do, they’d probably be right. They would never join the Ku Klux Klan, harass black people, or do any of the other nasty stuff that racists are supposed to do. But a good many of them think that, due to “cultural” reasons, blacks are lazy, prone to criminality, and abuse welfare programs paid for by hard-working (read: white) taxpayers. But they’d be the first to tell you that they aren’t racist, even though you’d never hear them talking about all the rural, white Americans on welfare.

The thing is, you don’t have to be outwardly (or even inwardly racist) to “get” that joke. It invokes historically entrenched cultural ideas of alleged differences between blacks and whites that are still ingrained in American society, even if most white people would rightfully (hopefully?!) be repulsed by what the “black man/large pizza” joke connotes. In other words, racism has so significantly shaped American culture that its shadows, in the form of racialism, can appear everywhere, even when the elusive original source of the shadow is unseen or outright rejected.

If, like me, you’ve never been black, then there’s no way for you to experience the unique feeling of being black in America as filtered through the lens of non-black others. We can’t feel racialism because, thanks to the birth lottery and the trajectory of modern American history, we’ve never been judged on our skin alone. We can’t know what’s it’s like to be assessed, ridiculed, reviled, feared, and defined solely based on something as mundane as pigmentation. But if you’re black in America, you know racialism exists even when hardcore racism is waning — and you know, as does Jonathan Chait, which political party has racialism as an unspoken part of its platform.

Conservatives have long scored political points by assuming, correctly, that a good many white Americans who would never join the KKK or lynch someone nonetheless know what’s implied by the “black man/large pizza” joke. In criticizing liberals who label those who practice, and respond to, dog-whistle politics as racists, Jonathan Chait is trying to grapple with how the legacy of racism could still be so influential in the era of the first black American president. In one sense, he’s correct that not all conservatives are racists, but by downplaying the importance race plays in shaping the politics of the modern American Right, he’s missing out on how the long shadow of racialism still casts over the American body politic.

* See George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 1, 6, 9.

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.

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.