Tag Archives: white supremacy

I Want Off The Grid Of The Trajectory of American History

In the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol building by a right-wing mob last week, I have found some of the rhetoric used by those who have condemned the attack as troubling as that used by those who provoked and encouraged it in the first place.

I was not surprised by what I witnessed last Wednesday. Many of our leaders, however, seemed absolutely shocked that a large group of violent imbeciles and cosplaying Punishers could assault this “beacon of liberty.”

Does anyone believe this anymore? While the Capitol dome certainly stands as a symbol of American power, that power has been deployed in the name of democracy far less often than many of our leaders seem to believe. The right-wing, racist violence we witnessed on Wednesday is as American as apple pie. Using violence to protect white power and white privilege is one of the things in which American lead the world, along side women’s basketball and incarcerating people of color.

The historian-turned-pundit Jill Lepore said in an interview on WBUR

On Point Presents: A Conversation with Jill Lepore
Time to Go Off The Grid.

that the events in Washington that left her feeling “speechless” were the sorts of things that occurred in other countries, not the United States. It was unfamiliar. “We are,” she said, “off the grid of the trajectory of American history.”

That is a mess of a sentence, but if it means what I think it means, I have to most adamantly disagree. No, Professor Lepore. What we saw on Wednesday was entirely consistent with American history. And from that trajectory and that grid, I swear to God I want off. That the United States is a nation committed to liberty and equality is the biggest lie in American history. Until we face that fact and address it in a meaningful way there is little hope for change.

This country was founded by treasure-seeking storm-troopers who carried with them across the Atlantic guns, avarice, steel and European religious bigotry. They enslaved and subjugated Indigenous peoples. The settlers who followed them came not for freedom but to extract a living from the soil. Whatever wealth they acquired was almost always built

Or Not: Ostriches Bury Their Heads in Sand
Americans Preparing for a Frank Discussion of Their History

upon the backs of millions of enslaved peoples who worked lands stripped away from their Indigenous occupiers at the point of a gun. There are many stories one might tell about Early America. Most of them are filled with exploitation, intolerance, violence, and greed.

It took a Civil War that killed more than 600,000 people to eradicate slavery, but in its aftermath Southerners and their conciliatory enablers rushed to reconstruct institutions that replicated the restrictions on African-Americans that stood before the war. Meanwhile, the armed forces of the United States continued to march against native peoples who refused to surrender their lives, liberties, and property to the United States.

Look around you. The United States, with less than five percent of the world’s population, is home to a quarter of its people who live their lives behind bars. When most Americans think about Indigenous peoples at all, they conjure images from the past. Few are willing to consider or are aware of the challenges these communities face today, and fewer still are willing to do anything to help.

On the same day that we learned that a stunning, multicultural coalition had elected the first Jew and the first African American to represent Georgia in the Senate, an armed white mob cried foul and stormed the United States Capitol, because they lost what all the evidence shows was a fair and free election. Those who stormed the capitol did not need to fear the inadequate police forces garrisoning the building. They knew, in their lizard brains, that law enforcement in this country too often and in too many ways acts to uphold white supremacy. They feared nothing. For that reason, among others, Wednesday’s violence was so depressing. Not because it was surprising or a new low, but because it was so familiar and so entirely predictable.

We Are Not Canada, But We Could Learn A Thing or Two

In a speech delivered last week before the United Nations, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about his country’s history of relations with its indigenous population.  He wanted to show the world that Canada could take responsibility for the “terrible mistakes” of its past.

Whether or not Canada has succeeded in doing, so, Trudeau spoke of the enduring legacies of colonialism.  “Early colonial relationships,” he said, for Canada’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples, “were not about strength through diversity, or a celebration of differences,” but rather an experience that “was mostly one of humiliation, neglect, and abuse.”

And the damage has been long-lasting indeed.  Trudeau spoke of Canadian indigenous communities with unsafe drinking water, of large numbers of missing or murdered indigenous women.  He spoke of “Indigenous parents in Canada who say goodnight to their children, and have to cross their fingers in the hopes that their kids won’t run away or take their own lives in the night.” The problems of which Trudeau spoke have been well-documented.

Trudeau has faced significant criticism at home from indigenous spokespeople who feel that his words have not been matched by action.  Many have criticized the Canadian movement towards reconciliation, which I have written about on this blog, as a feel-good movement for white people that does nothing about structural inequalities and injustices deeply rooted in Canadian society. These are significant critiques, and it is well-worthwhile for students of America’s native peoples to watch how Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission continues its work. (You can access its reports here.)

But despite the criticism of Trudeau and the limitations of his approach, for an American president to even consider saying something close to what Prime Minister said before the UN is utterly inconceivable.  If you saw the excellent “Wind River,” you will recognize that the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women is not exclusive to Canada.  Corporate profit-seeking in Indian Country has led to the devastation of water supplies on American reservations.  I have written much on this blog about DAPL (the documentary “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” is strong on sentiment but weaker in terms of substance) but that is hardly the only example.  More than a third of all Superfund sites are located in Indian Country, and others, like Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, are nearby. Police violence against native peoples, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and higher rates of deficiency on every measure of social well-being: the problems are enormous, the challenges daunting, and the resources available limited.  In both Canada and the United States, these are the legacies of an enduring colonialism.

Now, if I were to ask my students if they should expect President Trump to deliver a speech similar to that given by Prime Minister Trudeau, they would emphatically say “no.”  If I were to ask them why, their answers would be a bit more complex.  For to assert that Trump is a racist or white supremacist uninterested in hearing about complaints from or the conditions experienced by peoples of color, while true, only gets us so far. No American president, whatever his party, has spoken as frankly as Trudeau about his country’s mistakes and misdeeds. No, there is much more to it than the current American president’s long list of shortcomings, inadequacies, and character flaws.

The United States, regardless of its leader, has shown little interest in confronting its long history of colonialism.  The growth of the United States could not have occurred without the wholesale and systematic dispossession of native peoples.  Sure, many of the thousands of transactions where Indian land came into the hands of white people were “legal” in the sense that they were recorded in deeds or ratified in treaties, but these transactions have histories of their own.  They occurred because of the relentless pressure exerted by European farmers and their livestock on native lands, or because native peoples decided to sell lands that they knew from hard experience “settlers” would take from them anyways, or after epidemic diseases reduced an indigenous community’s population and this made their lands seem “vacant” or as “surplus” land. Some of these cessions were the price of peace after a military invasion of conquest and desolation.  Dispossession and violence often walked hand-in-hand.

The loss of land was immense. But it cannot be understood apart from the assault on native peoples’ cultures and ways of living.  Just as Canada had its residential schools, the United States had boarding schools. Still, there was so much more to the assault on Indian identity, and it was so much more thorough than a focus on these sadistic institutions might lead one to believe.  I tell the story of this cultural assault in Chapter 8 of Native America.

We, as a country, are not very good at talking about our misdeeds.  We insulate our children from these stories, for instance, for a variety of reasons: because the stories of the suffering that his country has caused native peoples are so massive that kids could not handle them, or because somehow hiding the country’s crimes from them is the best way to produce loyal and patriotic citizens. So we design curricula that talk about tiny parts of the Native American past, but not in a way that would cause children to question their country’s conduct.  It happened a long time ago. We are free and clear, we tell them.  We’ll blame it on Andrew Jackson, and call it a day.

Meanwhile we cast Indians as part of the past, a point I have raised on this blog many times, because it makes it easier to deny their just grievances today.  We will pat ourselves on the back for renaming a football team, or changing Columbus Day to “Indigenous Peoples Day,” or persuading this or that religious denomination to renounce its approval for the Doctrine of Discovery, valuable though these acts may be.  But let’s be clear. These actions cost white people little, and the structural burdens imposed by colonialism and white supremacy survive them and remain intact.  We like to tinker around the edges of significant problems. Too many of us view manifestations of Indian identity as inauthentic, and the expressions of long-held grievances as belly-aching about things that happened long ago.  We do not believe, as a rule, that inter-generational trauma is a thing, or that the burdens of history weigh more heavily upon some people than upon others.

We are unrepentant, unwilling to apologize, and to many of us too ill-informed or too uninterested to learn and understand how Native America’s loss has been white America’s gain.

As I wrote the first draft of this post earlier this morning, the hourly NPR newsbreak came over the radio.  The first story was Donald Trump’s denunciation of those NFL players who, with respect and civility, took a knee to protest police brutality and the continuing slaughter of people of color by the nation’s law enforcement officers.  The second story involved the shooting of a deaf person of color by police officers in Oklahoma. The victim did not hear the officers’ demand that he set down the metal pipe he was holding.

This country, it’s something else sometimes.  As native peoples long have told us, white people in America are comfortable dictating to people of color how they should conduct themselves, the forms of grievance and redress-seeking that are legitimate, not to mention how to conduct themselves religiously, spiritually, emotionally, sexually, domestically, and aesthetically. When kneeling for the National Anthem is viewed as more disrespectful than flying the Confederate flag, and when this proposition can be debated, defended, and taken seriously by millions of almost exclusively white Americans who support the President, it is pretty evident that the sickness is rooted deep.

Justin Trudeau clearly has not come close to doing what his very sincere and committed critics want him to do, but he has done more than any American president, and he is light years ahead of our Brass Creon. Talking cannot do everything, and acknowledging past crimes is not a remedy by itself. But it’s a start. It is a vital precondition to things getting better. The act of acknowledging that I am at least partially responsible for your pain,  and that I have benefited from the historical suffering of your people: it can be a powerful thing.  I am fully aware that I am speaking favorably of Prime Minister Trudeau for doing, at the end of the day, what any informed and honest person would do.  Yet our current leadership, in politics and in public education, in the Democratic and in the Republican parties, are not even close to being able to clear so low a bar.

On Charlottesville, and Our National Character

In what ways does the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville matter?

In the past two weeks I have listened to the Attorney General of the United States announce his determination to investigate discrimination on college campuses against…..wait for it….white people.  This move was endorsed by a President who has called Mexicans “rapists” and “animals,” and who has in as many words endorsed police brutality against African Americans and other people of color.  A sheriff’s deputy in Oklahoma, meanwhile, who gunned down an African American man who was walking away from her with his hands raised was rehired by another law enforcement agency.  And Friday night, and again on Saturday in Charlottesville, white supremacists marched in an American city, on an American college campus founded by Thomas Jefferson.  That flawed hypocrite whose moral cowardice was so great, who fathered children with his slave mistress while owning many other African Americans, who denounced native peoples as savages and spent much of his presidency trying to dispossess them, proclaimed his support for the premise that “all men are created equal.”

Saturday morning I sold a broken down flat-screen TV to a scrap-dealer.  Found a dude on Craig’s List who bought and sold dead flat-screens, and who included in his rapid-fire text messages a reference to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  He showed up. Never shook my hand. Never made eye-contact, and never acknowledged my wife who also was standing outside.  He had on an Infowars T-Shirt.  “Ideas are bulletproof,” it read, with the letters imposed over an image of the Constitution. And the stickers on the back window of his truck?  A gun, pointed right at me, with the caption “Not This Truck;”  a  “F–k Cuomo” sticker, with the “f” and the “k” fashioned from the outlines of assault rifles; and a seal for some sort of militia group to which he pledged allegiance (I wish I could remember exactly what it said).

I sold a broken down television, in other words, to a guy who loudly proclaimed his embrace of Christianity in every text he sent, while at the same time announcing to all whose path he crossed that he not only would use violence to protect his personal property, but that he expected somebody to try to take it.  What a dark, frightened, and violent way to look at the world.

These views, expressed on my driveway by a frightened but well-armed scrap-dealer/militia member, or acted upon by the vicious nerds, gun fetishists, racists and thugs in Charlottesville, and described as moral equivalents to the views held by those who believe in justice, equality, and that black lives do matter by our babbling President, are of course nothing new in American history.  We have seen this before.  Too many times over too many years.  Nearly all of us who study this nation’s history for a living, I suspect, were shocked, angered and dismayed, but we were not surprised.  Sick and tired, but not surprised. The racists and white supremacists appeared in Charlottesville, but they had never, every, really gone away.

And that is a lesson, I believe, that must now inform my courses in Native American History even more than they have done in the past.  Hatred and fear of a racialized other.  It runs through the colonial period of American history. You cannot miss it if you look at the sources: from the treatment of native peoples by a frontier population intent on extracting a livelihood from ground seized from native peoples, to the slave owners, and the the lawmakers and legislators and founding fathers who regulated and policed the expropriation of native peoples’ lands and African peoples’ labor.   As I make my way slowly through Robert Parkinson’s magisterial The Common Cause, the best book I have seen on the American Revolution in some time, it is abundantly clear how important a fostered hatred of warlike native peoples and rebellious African slaves was to give shape to the “common cause” for which American patriots fought during the Revolutionary war.  Racism was there at the outset, fundamental to the formation of American national identity.  There have been, of course, many courageous people who have spoken out against this blight at the heart of the nation–some of them were mowed own by a white supremacist’s car on Saturday–and this heroic tradition is important.  But to deny the centrality of its opposite–racial antipathy–is to fail to examine closely the entire content of our nation’s character.

Three times more Africans migrated to the English American colonies than white people between 1630 and 1780.  Slavery was fundamental to the settlement and growth of the Anglo-American empire.  That dynamic and expansive process of enslavement, as historians like Brett Rushforth, Alan Gallay, Linford Fisher, Christina Snyder and many others have recently shown, ensnared many native peoples, too.  Slavery was central.  So was the systematic and organized dispossession of native peoples. I have tried to write about all of this in the second edition of Native America.

“This was all in the past,” you might say.  That is what Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to think.  The President, too, ever-ready with insult and slur, has proven himself time and again incapable of denouncing the white supremacists who believe strongly that he endorses their views.  This all is heartbreaking, you might say.  You might say that what we are seeing in Charlottesville is inconsistent with who we are as a nation.  You may respond to the news  by tweeting out a message of hope or inspiration under the hashtag #thisisnotus.  That is naive.  Dispossession. Discrimination.  Police forces, armed and militarized to the hilt, locked and loaded to protect the lives, liberties, and property of white people from what  they perceive as the threat posed by people of color, slay African Americans and Native Americans largely without fear of the consequences.

I have seen an increasing number of “Police Lives Matter” flags in the Rochester area, and “Blue Line” American flags.  I see on the news stories about how a Canandaigua woman quickly sold out of the shirts and signs she printed proclaiming that “I Support the Police,” or something like that. It’s a tough job. I get that. If you cannot do it without fearing or discriminating or murdering people of color, please for the sake of humanity do something else.

Is it worse than it has been in the past? We have talked about this as a family. We live in a small suburb of Rochester, a faculty ghetto of sorts where most residents like to think of themselves as tolerant and open to diversity.  My wife, whose skin is dark, is pulled over frequently by our local police; in nineteen years living here, I have never been pulled over.  It has been bad in the past.  There is no denying that.  But it is bad now, and it is getting worse even in the short time since the last election.  For too many white Americans, black lives do not matter.   Native lives, for too many of them, matter not at all. Too many white people view programs like affirmative action, intended to address past systematic injustices, as a threat.  And the people who hold these views? They know the president has their back.

I would like to think that we historians can make a difference, however small, by discussing this history in our classes. I do not see how one can understand American history in its complexity without doing so.  Few people read our work, I know.  But if we are to be effective educators, we must reach out.  We must have faith in the power of knowledge and reason and dialogue and debate.  We must write and teach with the urgency that comes from knowing that our words matter.  And in African-American History, or Native American history, we have the opportunity to explore the structural inequalities and profound injustices that have always rested at the core of this nation’s story.  We must be straight with our students.  Most of my colleagues are already doing this, but the urgency for doing this is growing. Cast away the comforting myths.  It is not our job to instill love of country, patriotism or civics.  We must counter this argument every chance we get. Leave that to the hacks and the partisans, the liars and the myth-makers and the members of the PTA.  We must defend what we do. We must be honest.  Look the evil in the eye.  Expose it to the light of day.  Name the evil, and show our students where it has manifested itself in the past, and the many forms it can take, the contortions and distortions it demands and justifies.  We will take some heat in doing this.  The dingbats and the right-wingers and some of the most conservative evangelicals and others will say that we are not doing our jobs, that we must stick to the facts.   And we cannot take these foolish charges sitting down. We must challenge those who denounce what we are doing with the meaningless and stupid epithet, “politically correct.” Debate these people.  Call them out, politely, professionally, but persistently. Only by standing tall can we help to inspire in our students the courage to speak out, to ask tough questions, and demand reasoned and relevant answers.  Only by doing so can we, in some small way, encourage them to confront and to resist the rottenness that has plagued this nation for far too long.

I’m So Bored with the CSA

On Tuesday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed legislation stating that his state would no longer commemorate Confederate general Robert E. Lee on the federal Martin Luther King holiday.  It is a nice gesture, as far as it goes. Now only Alabama and Mississippi maintain this callous disrespect for the Reverend King by linking the commemoration of his career with that of a Confederate leader who fought against all that he stood for.

The Arkansas bill had wide support.  The signing ceremony included the expressions of all sorts of good feelings. Lawmakers patted themselves on the back for their courageous decision to separate the state’s commemoration of two men, one who fought for civil rights, and the other a civil war.  But not everybody was happy.  Republican State Representative Jana Della Rosa saw the separation as a demotion for Lee.  “We are taking Robert E. Lee and and are putting him in the basement and we are acting embarrassed that he ever existed,” she said during the debate.

No, Jana Della Rosa, you are not.  Robert E. Lee still has his own day, which will now be celebrated on the second Saturday in October.  But Representative Della Rosa could not be placated.  Speaking of the vote, she said, “it’s no different than if we took that statue of the Confederate soldier and put it down in the basement and said nobody is going to look at it again.”

I am not sure what it is with Representative Della Rosa and basements.  Governor Hutchinson acknowledged the concerns of lawmakers like her when he stated at the signing ceremony that Arkansans should not be ashamed of their Confederate history.

But here is the thing. The South, and southerners in general, should be ashamed.

Some of my students still are taught in high school that the Civil War was fought over States’ Rights.  Nonsense.  Slavery and White Supremacy.  These were causes Southerners thought worth dying for. These were causes for which they were killing to kill.  More than 600,000 people died as a result of the South’s determination to protect slavery.

As Charles R. Dew demonstrated in his fantastic book Apostles of Disunion, Southerners who advocated secession from the Union associated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln with three stark images that, Dew writes, “constituted the white South’s worst nightmare.”

The first, Dew writes, “was the looming specter of racial equality.” Second, was the fear of race war. The Republican party of Lincoln, wrote one secession commissioner from Mississippi, will not only destroy slavery but “will drench the country in blood, and extirpate one or other of the races.”  And, third, the southern secessionists  most dire fear, that of racial amalgamation.  Dew’s work is worth quoting at length:

Judge Harris of Mississippi sounded this note in Georgia in December 1860 when he spoke of Republican insistence on “equality in the rights of matrimony.”  Other commissioners repeated this warning in the weeks that followed.  In Virginia, Henry Benning insisted that under Republican-led abolition, “our women” would suffer “horrors…we cannot contemplate in imagination.” There was not an adult present who could not imagine exactly what Benning was talking about.  Leroy Pope Walker, Alabama’s commissioner to Tennessee and subsequently the first Confederate secretary of war, predicted that in the absence of secession, all would be lost–first, “our property,” and “then our liberties,” and finally the South’s greatest treasure, “the sacred purity of our daughters.”

Southern secessionists, Dew concluded, believed these things in the marrow of their bones.

Governor Hutchinson did the right thing in disconnecting the commemorations of Reverend King and General Lee.  But in keeping a day on the state’s calendar for honoring Lee, and asserting in his comments that Southerners should be proud of their Confederate heritage, he went too far.

We are too late in history for this sort of stuff.  The Confederacy stood for white supremacy.  That hundreds of thousands of men died in the struggle to preserve the Union and abolish slavery is sad. In an American nation where Southern states are moving to restrict access to the polls, and “Alt-Right”-inspired political leaders consistently blow racist dog whistles, we must study closely the causes and consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as the history of race and racism in American society.  But, please, no more celebration of the Confederacy.  Take down the flags.  Put General Lee in the basement.