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Ask Yourself: Can You Forgive?

January 11th, 2015 No comments

I Surrender All

January 4th, 2015 No comments

One Surabaya church — Manwar Sharon Church — lost 40 members in the crash. Around 100 relatives gathered for a prayer service in a hall at the Surabaya airport where the Rev. Philip Mantofa urged the crowd to hold onto their faith, despite their pain.

“Some things do not make sense to us, but God is bigger than all this,” he said. “Our God is not evil … help us God to move forward even though we are surrounded by darkness.”

Before breaking up, those gathered stood together and sang with their hands reaching upward: “I surrender all. I surrender all. I surrender all to God our savior. I surrender all.”

 

The Tail of the Snake that Still Wiggles

January 3rd, 2015 No comments

To start off with I think it’s a good thing that we are having a discussion about race in the United States because we are obviously not over it. For us to just bury our head in the sand and pretend the problem has fixed itself is clearly destructive. And this in spite of the fact that there have been obvious gains. Huge gains.

But what is disheartening is that when we approach this discussion we approach it within the context of a tired worldview wherein every problem must be defined as a dichotomy. There are different ways of labeling it: Democratic vs. Republican and Liberal vs. Conservative being the most common. The problem with this is that it does not reflect reality and it does not lead to real communication. We all just retreat behind our fortress walls and lob condemnation at our foes. The “discussion” consists of criticism of the other side, vilifying each other with accusations we heard somewhere else (what a treasure the Facebook meme!) that we may or may not believe but if we applied rudimentary logic to could not as rational educated people possibly support.

I think the biggest problem with this non-discussion is that it appears that one “side” will only be successful when it convinces the other “side” that it is right. So all of the effort goes into self-justification through other-vilification, rather than seeking a solution. Because for a solution to be found would require that both sides admit they are wrong, and right. Both groups have legitimate grievances. But rather than hearing the grievances, all of our effort is spent denying them.

What I’m going to do now is the subject of a medium sized book at least but I do have some familiarity with the topic so I’d like for us to consider briefly some historical facts. And as we do we may come to a point where we can place what is happening today in a better context. This kind of exercise is how I try to convince my students that familiarity with history is essential to good citizenship in a democracy. And if we see things through a clearer and less passion fogged lens maybe we can take the discussion to a different level, where solutions can be found.

A conservative friend recently asked why it is that Republicans are considered the party of the status quo, which includes the racial status quo, and Democrats are considered to be progressives, when at the time of the Civil War and in the years following it was the Republicans who fought for emancipation and civil rights for former slaves and the Democrats who were willing to go to war to prevent these things? Well, while that’s true, it is historically removed from what’s happening today, as I will show.

In order to understand this we have to go back to before the Civil War: to the election of 1860. Before I describe the political situation in 1860 I should point out that American politics then were not party driven as they are now. Politics was regional. There had existed from the beginning of the republic and even earlier a tension between North and South that was based in economics. The North was an industrializing economy, the South’s livelihood was based on export agriculture. As the nineteenth century progressed, the North grew in population and prosperity. The Southern economy was prosperous, but the Southern population was stagnant. Differences in population led to a power shift toward the North at the national level, and to the creation of national economic policies that favored the North but punished the South. Southerners grew to resent this.

Economics was also at the base of the debate about abolition. Because of the reliance of the Southern plantation economy on slave labor, slavery came to be associated with the South. True abolitionists saw the emancipation of slaves to be a moral imperative, but hardly any politicians were abolitionists. Politicians saw the issue in terms of power. Northerners wanted to restrict the spread of slavery to prevent Southerners from gaining power in the national government, while Southerners sought to spread the empire of slavery in order to gain more national power. In typical American fashion, both sides entered debate with propaganda pro and con slavery, but most politicians couldn’t care less about the morality of slavery. The level of rhetoric between the two sides was typically low. If Facebook had existed at the time, we would read about their debates in memes. It is probably little known that while Lincoln himself was against the expansion of slavery, he was not necessarily in favor of equal rights, and was instrumental in the founding of Liberia as a place where former slaves could be “sent back to,” as in “send them back to Africa.”

Lincoln made his ideas about slavery and union very clear in a letter to Horace Greeley in 1862,

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.[1]

The pressing issue was then, as it had been since the beginning of the republic, could states ignore the authority of the national government if their interests were challenged, and, going further, could states remove themselves from the union? The secessionist argument was that they had voluntarily created the Union, so they could voluntarily dissolve it. As a kind of interesting side note here one would suppose that these questions were settled by the Civil War, but listen to the rhetoric coming from states’ rights advocates and even secessionists in the wake of unpopular federal initiatives such as Health Care access and immigration.

At any rate, at the beginning of the Civil War, slavery was a symptom of the differences between North and South, not the cause. Southerners believed by and large that they were fighting a war for freedom against an over-arching tyranny represented by the federal government. Hardly anyone in the South owned slaves, and few were fighting to keep slaves. The issue was freedom. Likewise, in the North, people were fighting for the principle of union. Hardly anyone was fighting to free the slaves, and in fact when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued Union soldiers including many officers abandoned the struggle because their fight was not against slavery, it was for union. Notice also that when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, it did not apply to slaves in the Union states of Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.

Now let’s think about the political situation in 1860, when Lincoln was elected. In the election of 1860, which was only the second election in which Republicans ran a national candidate, there were actually four parties. There was the Republican Party, which had taken up the mantle of the defunct party of the Northern Whigs who could trace their beginnings to the Federalist party of the Washington era. The thing that united the Republicans, as it had their Federalists and the Whig predecessors, was a vision of the United States as an industrial power. But the Republican Party, in pursuit of that goal, were in favor of limiting the expansion of slavery. The Republican Party was active in the Northern States and in the West (California and Oregon), but not in the South. In fact, Lincoln’s name did not appear on the ballot in the South.

The national Democratic Party was divided into two: the Northern Democrats led by Stephen Douglas, and the Southern Democrats led by John Breckenridge. The difference between the Northern and Southern Democrats was, you guessed it: the issue of whether the federal government could under the constitution regulate property ownership in the states. What was the property? Slaves.

Finally, there was a third party called the Constitutional Union Party made up of Southerners who were against abolitionism but also against secession.

So in the election of 1860, there were four choices: Republican, appearing on the ballot only in the North and West, defined in the mind of Southerners as liberals who would infringe upon their sacred liberties (property rights) because they were anti-slavery and anti-secession, Northern Democrats, who were by and large anti-slavery and also anti-secessionist, Constitutional Union, who were pro-slavery but anti-secession, and Southern Democrats, who were pro-slavery, white supremacist, and pro-secession. When Lincoln won the election without a single vote in the South it signaled to the secessionists their insignificance in the national scheme, and that led to the procession of Southern States seceding from the Union. It should be noted here that those who led the South to secession were all Democrats. But it should also be noted that the Southern Democrats had broken with the national party, and that there was no other viable party in the South than these ultra-conservative Southern Democrats.

After secession the Republicans were left in absolute control of the national government. The Republican Party platform, as I mentioned, reflected the interests of big business and industry, while at the same time espousing what was then thought of as the “radical” proposition of not only emancipation but also civil rights for former slaves. Now, we cannot discount that these principles were driven to some extent by humanitarian or moral concerns, but we must also keep in mind the desire of these “Radical Republicans” to reconstruct (as opposed to restore) the South after the War.

After the War Republicans hoped to harness the electoral power of the newly freed slaves to increase and cement Republican political hegemony in the South. An interesting side note about the 15th Amendment (right to vote) is that it was so constructed as to allow former slaves to vote because they were likely to vote Republican, but at the same time to allow preventing others from voting. This was because for Republicans the focus of the amendment was to gain power in the South, but they saw that it could be used against them in California, where minorities were more likely to vote for the Democratic Party. So they included loopholes that allowed restricting voting under certain circumstances, which would later be deftly used by Southern Democrats to institutionalize Jim Crow.

By 1876 the thrill of having won the war and the high minded ideals of the Radical Republicans were overshadowed by economic concerns. The core values of the Republican Party were in the promotion of industrialization and the expansion of the US economy. By 1876 people in the North were tired of hearing about civil rights. They had freed the slaves. What more did they want? Now they were on their own. This in the face of relentless efforts by white Southerners to restore the South to pre-War conditions by restoring white supremacy rule by means of whip, rope, gun, and law. They called it “Redemption,” we call it Jim Crow. And the only thing keeping them from it was the presence of federal troops in the South enforcing civil rights laws.

The election of 1876 resulted in a political crisis when the Electoral College was not able to choose a President. The constitution calls for the election to go to the House of Representatives in such a case, but the man who had received the most votes: Rutherford Hayes, was a Republican, and the House was controlled by Democrats. It was feared that if the House voted the Democrat, Samuel Tilden, would win, even though he had received fewer votes. A commission was appointed to decide the election which resulted in what is known as The Compromise of 1876. The most important element of this compromise for our purposes was that Hayes was elected but at the cost of removing federal troops from the South. So the election of a Republican President resulted almost directly in the triumph of Jim Crow, the creation of a legally segregated inferior class based on race, because the compromise allowed Southerners to prevent Blacks from voting, and within months the South was once again in the hands of white supremacists. The South had been “redeemed.”

Now let us notice that from 1876 until sometime after World War 2 Southern politics was dominated by ultra-conservative Southern Democrats. But let us also recall that these same Democrats were not ideologically different from Southern Democrats who broke from the national party at the beginning of the Civil War, who were anachronistic then. These Southern Democrats continued to be at odds with the interests of the national Democratic Party, which more and more became associated with labor, with farmers, with urban dwellers, and with immigrants. So coming into the twentieth century there were two wings of the Democratic Party, the ultra-conservative white supremacist Southern Democrats, and the much more liberal Northern and Western Democrats.

In the meantime the Republican Party became for a number of historical reasons associated nationally with Progressivism, while at the same time it remained the party of big business. The tension between these two policy positions became untenable in 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt, who represented the progressive wing of the party, broke with William Howard Taft and ran as the Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party candidate. The result was a split in the electorate that led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, a Northern Democrat. It was under Wilson that the Democratic Party took up the mantle of Progressivism which it has maintained until today. But the Southern Democrats remained unchanged.

Now, where does Civil Rights as an issue fit in this? In fact the issue of Civil Rights became associated with the Progressive movement but did not gain traction as a national political issue for either Republicans or Democrats. We might ask ourselves why but the main thing to consider is that what little gains there were in Civil Rights in the era before World War 2 were accomplished through litigation by entities such as the NAACP. The NAACP was often successful in striking down Jim Crow statutes locally but their gains had little effect on the institution as a whole.

This all changed after World War 2. Black people were called upon to sacrifice for the war effort and they did, often heroically. When upon returning from the war they were met with the same prejudice and injustice that had existed before the war they refused to accept a return to the status quo ante. There was a new militancy among groups formerly excluded from privilege who had proven their “American-ness” in the War and now sought equal recognition. Eventually the Montgomery Bus Boycott would lead to the rise of a new voice and different strategy in the pursuit of Civil Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It would be the strategy of consciousness raising that would ultimately make the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a reality.

But politically, the big shift in the South began in 1948. President Harry Truman wanted to run for reelection in 1948 but was seen as too conservative by many of the more liberal leaders of the Democratic Party. One of the things he did to reach out to the liberal wing of the party was to take up the cause of civil rights. He worked closely with Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph to make clear the anti-segregationist policies of his administration, which resulted in Executive Order 9981 desegregating the Armed Services. This act placed Truman squarely in the liberal camp but completely alienated Southern whites, who began to desert the Democratic Party.

Civil Rights played an important role in the election of 1948, because while the national Democratic Party adopted a strong Civil Rights position, several Southern Democrats bolted the party and nominated Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the candidate of the Southern States’ Rights or Dixiecrat Party. The Dixiecrats were, in essence, little removed ideologically from the Southern Democrats who had bolted the party in 1860. After 1948 the national Democratic Party came more and more to be associated with Civil Rights leaving Southern whites few alternatives in the choice of political party. They were left with little alternative than to defect to the Republican Party.

Interestingly, the Republican Party was not ideologically much different from the national Democrats in terms of race relations. Many Republicans opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but their opposition was based not on Civil Rights per se but on the role of the federal government in ensuring them. For example, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was on record as a staunch advocate of Civil Rights, but he voted against the Civil Rights Act because he believed it would enhance the power of the federal government and infringe on the property rights of business owners. Richard Nixon had a strong record in favor of Civil Rights, but during the 1960 Presidential election campaign he hesitated to publicly support Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been jailed outside Atlanta, while John Kennedy and his brother Robert were instrumental in securing King’s release. A solid argument can be made that this act delivered a very tight election to Kennedy, but at the same time it further alienated Southern whites from the Democratic Party.

And so it is that white supremacy became associated in the South with Republicans, while Civil Rights came to be associated with Democrats. What must be kept in mind is that there exists and has pretty much always existed in American politics a group of whites, mostly but not exclusively in the South, who believe in and support white supremacy. This group has always been openly and vocally racist. For most of the history of the United States they have called themselves Democrats; after 1948 many of them ended up calling themselves Republicans. But they have never been representative of either party, really. They are, to put it simply, just racists.

So, should we consider racism to be a Democrat vs. Republican issue? No. Should we consider it in terms of liberal vs. conservative? Not really, although the issues of abolition, emancipation, and civil rights have been considered liberal issues in American politics. Some scholars have argued that the issue of race in the United States is more associated with class. It seems to be true that the lower on the socio-economic scale one is the more pernicious racism is, among all groups. So we can see, for example, that the US political elite is thoroughly integrated, probably more so than any other country on earth. But in the lower socio-economic strata racism is still rampant among all groups.

Still, if we must insist on a dichotomy, the dichotomy must be racist vs. not-racist. Our enemy is not each other, it is racism. No single group has a monopoly on racism, and wherever racism rears its ugly head it leaves behind hatred, mistrust, destruction and despair. Instead of arraying ourselves against each other we must unify in opposition to our real enemy, which is racism. And we are all guilty. We’re not guilty of the things that happened over a century ago. We’re not guilty of slavery and Jim Crow. But we’re guilty of allowing the effects of those evils to persist. And they obviously do. So we are all guilty. And unless we can unite, we will all pay the price. The only acceptable outcome of this discussion is unity and brotherhood.

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

[1] A. Lincoln to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862, source Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm. Accessed January 3, 2015.

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