Tag Archives: Reconstruction

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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The Confederate Flag: America’s Most Loaded Generic Symbol of Rebellion

Privleged, white, rebels without a clue in Colorado.

Rebels without a clue in Colorado.

The Confederate flag is an American symbol like no other. The reasons for this aren’t complicated: the Rebel flag is both distinctly American and functionally anti-American at the same time. It’s American in the sense that it once stood for a rebellion started by Americans, but anti-American in the sense that those American rebels waged a treasonous war against, you know, the United States. Yes-sir-ee-Bob, the stars and bars represents the most chaotic moment in U.S. history, when the land of the free went to war over the fact that millions of its residents were decidedly unfree, and plenty of (white) Americans wanted to maintain that status quo.

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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.

Paul Ryan and the Historical Myth of the Undeserving Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological "truths."

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Unicorn Land) has never let reality intrude on his impenetrable ideological “truths.”

If you’re poor in America, Wisconsin’s favorite Social Security-collecting, Ayn Rand worshipping Congresscritter thinks it’s your own fault. Why does Paul Ryan blame people for their own poverty, you may ask? After all, as I discussed in a previous post, being poor is absolutely terrible: it leaves you wracked with financial insecurity; it flattens your self-confidence, and it’s bad for your health. But despite the general awfulness of poverty, guys like Paul Ryan and his army of ideologically like-minded right-wing goons still think that the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor. And in the U.S., what you look like (hint: what box you check when asked if you’re “black” or “white”) matters a whole lot when it comes to discussing being poor.

Paul Ryan and other conservatives know this all too well; in recent decades, they’ve made plenty of electoral hay out of playing up the long historical connection between race and poverty in America. Recently, Ryan was a guest on the Morning in America radio show of conservative moral crusader – and full-time gambler – Bill Bennett, where he discussed the long-running War on Poverty. When the discussion moved to the inner city (an American phrase that’s code for “black people”), Ryan cited the bogus theories of right-wing social scientist Charles Murray – who believes that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites – to claim that inner city poverty stems from a culture of laziness on the part of African-Americans.

You see, Ryan, Murray, and plenty of other Americans think that poor people are poor because they don’t want to work. They think that lazy people can’t get jobs, so instead they get on public welfare doles. And historically, blacks and other minorities have had the high rates of poverty in the U.S. Thus, in the minds of Ryan and his ilk, “the poor” is often used as a stand-in phrase for “black people,” or other minorities, who’re allegedly stuck in “poverty traps” because they don’t have enough initiative to work. End of story.

This is why conservatives are hostile to the idea of welfare and why they score political points among many white voters when they talk about shredding the safety net. As the mighty Paul Krugman notes in the New York Times: “American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.” In American history, race is utterly inseparable from class. When you talk about one, you have to talk about the other. Conservatives know this. By invoking images of lazy black people to white voters for political gain, they’re tapping into a long-held national myth that casts America as the forever “Land of Opportunity,” where not making it economically is, to paraphrase popular philosopher Jimmy Buffett, your own damn fault.

Of course, things have never been that simple. As historian Gary Nash explains in the book Down and Out in Early America,”the great myth of early American history is that scarce labor in a land-rich environment eliminated poverty.” Nash writes that Americans don’t want to discuss poverty because the very concept “is offensive to the notion of a people of plenty, an insult to the bounteous natural resources of North America, a puzzlement to those who believe in the untrammeled equality of opportunity” and “an embarrassment to those who trumpet American classlessness and exceptionalism.”* But even in the eighteenth century – the century of revolution – there was poverty. Lots of it. The streets of early America were strewn not only with widows, orphans, the disabled, and the sick – groups traditionally prone to poverty – but also with thousands of able-bodied men and women. This trend only accelerated with the rise of the industrial era and continues into the twenty-first century.*

Quite simply: the poor have always been with us, and being poor in America has always been an awful state of being. The reasons for American poverty have varied over time, but two points stand out: 1.) non-white people have often been poorer than whites and 2.) living in a land of plenty doesn’t help when you’re denied access to political rights and economic resources by those who use force and privilege to play by their own rules and keep a bigger share of the American economic apple pie.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Poverty and alcoholism run rampant on the Pine Ridge Oglala/Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota, where the shadow of history looms large.

Let’s just consider a few general examples, shall we? Native-Americans continue to live in some of the most poverty-stricken conditions in America. African-Americans have tended to fare better in recent decades, but the wealth gap between blacks and whites in America continues to be vast – and it’s still widening. Now what types of experiences could blacks and Native people have possibly shared during the long formation of modern America?

Well, native tribes were, from the colonial era well into the twentieth century, forcefully removed from their ancestral lands (most notably under Andrew Jackson, champion of  democracy for all white men) and relocated onto reservations that – thanks to government indifference – became sites of generationally reoccurring poverty. And they were the lucky ones when you consider that hundreds-of-thousands of other native people were exterminated under U.S. government policies that were, by any measurement, genocidal. Those who survived endured, and still endure, prejudice and discrimination even after they gained franchise rights. In the twenty-first century, counties with American Indian reservations still contain some of the highest percentages of people living in poverty in the U.S. Considering the historical background, is that much of a surprise?

African-Americans endured similar violence and subjugation throughout much of U.S. history. First brought to the American colonies as slaves, blacks endured generations as human property that was bought, sold, and abused by whites who supposedly lived by the creed that “All Men are Created Equal.” Even after the Civil War ended slavery, blacks spent another generation fighting for political and social rights as free people. From the mid-nineteenth century up to the mid-twentieth century, white America denied blacks full access to political and economic equality, and anti-black prejudice was enforced by the swords of domestic terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan and lynch mobs.

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he's lying down!

An image of urban poverty in America. This guy must be lazy because just look: he’s lying down!

Even as southern blacks left the countryside for the cities during the Great Migration, whites used, and continue to use, tactics like redlining, white flight, discriminatory tax incentives, and mortgage discrimination to drain wealth out of the cities and limit economic opportunities for blacks trapped therein. Should it be any surprise, then, that poverty has historically been high in black communities? No, it shouldn’t.

It’s easy to say that history is in the past, and that the past shouldn’t be used as an excuse for conditions in the present. But those who spout variations of that sentiment are often, not coincidently, white males who have never been on the historical receiving end of apartheid, genocide, forced labor, cultural decimation, disenfranchisement, and mass discrimination. This isn’t to say that individual Native-Americans and African-Americans haven’t reached levels of success in American society. They have. Nor am I saying that white Americans haven’t endured – and continue to endure – grinding poverty. They have.

But those like Paul Ryan, who continue to insist that poverty is the pure result of some sort of cultural (or racial) defect, and not the result of a multiplicity of structural issues – not least of which is the concentration of American wealth and political power into fewer and fewer hands – are polluting public discourse with claims that stem not from reality, but from ideology. Conservatives shy away from the structural reasons for poverty because these reasons expose critical flaws in their conceptions of free-market capitalism as the organic, natural, and just way to organize a society.

Capitalism has many virtues and, when properly regulated by the state or other appropriate forces, it can improve the standard of living for millions of people. But as a system designed and implemented by flawed humans, capitalism is not immune to the worst of all human instincts: greed and the will to dominate others. For Paul Ryan to recognize these realities would entail a re-examination of his cherished faith in unfettered market forces and a recognition that, as a white guy, he and others like him have had it made for quite some time.

* See Gary B. Nash, “Poverty and Politics in Early American History,” in Billy G. Smith, ed., Down and Out in Early America (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004), 1-14.

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.

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.