A Note on Racial History.

(x-posted from United States of Jamerica)

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent post – “The Tragedy and Betrayal of Booker T. Washington” – is fantastic, and you’d be doing yourself a favor if you take a few minutes out of your day to read it.  I just want to comment on this particular passage:

The dominant logic of the post-Reconstruction era held that the real problem wasn’t white racists, but carpetbaggers and meddlers from up North who’d elevated illiterate blacks above their station. The white Southerner, presumably, had no existential objection to blacks, they just didn’t want to live next door to them or have an illiterate and morally degenerate population electing their politicians. To this Washington, and much of black America, said Fine. Cease fire. You let us be, we’ll let you be.

In retrospect, this was a grievous error. In point of fact, whites actually did have an existential objection to black people. Their beef wasn’t that illiterates and moral degenerates might get too much power. Quite the opposite. Their beef was that blacks would prove to not be illiterates and moral degenerates, and thus fully able to compete with them. To see this point illustrated, one need only look at the history of race riots in the South. When white mobs set upon black communities they didn’t simply burn down the “morally degenerate” portions–they attacked the South’s burgeoning black middle and working class and its institutions. They went for the churches, the schools and the businesses. It’s one thing to be opposed to black amorality. It’s quite another to be opposed to black progress.

One of the (many) things that hamper intelligent discussions of race is the fact that most Americans don’t even have an inkling of the extent to which American race history is marked by terrible violence directed towards African-Americans.  I think it’s fair to say that most white Americans (and even a fair number of black Americans) see America’s racial history in three steps: first blacks were slaves, and then – for a while – they were half-free, and couldn’t drink from certain water fountains or go to certain restaurants.  Finally, with the help of Rosa Parks and MLK, they became fully free!  The End.  I’d wager that few Americans realize that for a considerable period of time (certainly more than half a century), whites waged an organized and sustained campaign against black progress, and that that has had tremendous implications for the social, political and economic development of black America.   That this isn’t common knowledge is almost certainly one (big) reason for the sorry state of our racial dialogue.

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Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two. You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.

15 comments to A Note on Racial History.

  • Well said, though I would add that a lot of Americans do not really grapple with American history as a whole (viewing it as either overwhelmingly good or bad).

    When are you guys gonna talk about Booker T (and not the wrestler)? I nominate his biography (thanks Ta-Nehisi) as the new item on the reading list thingy. That and I love me some historical biographies.

  • Belle

    Also check out Jelani Cobb’s post on americanexception.com

  • Joanie

    Yup, and thinking of history this way has also created these discrete periods of “pre-civil rights” when everything was bad, and “post-civil rights,” now that racism is over (“You have a black president now,” etc).

  • Great points. There’s a real failure to grapple with how specific policies actively antagonized black wealth creation.

    When the white middle class came into its own after WWII, black people were still being redlined and forbidden from buying homes, or in the case of many big cities, neighborhoods with significant black populations had homes that were appraised at substantially lower rates. That means that a second- or third-generation black homeowner would be inheriting substantially less wealth than a white person in similar circumstances. (It also created an additional disincentive for whites to live near blacks, and reinforced the de facto segregation in northern cities.

    And this isn’t even going into the whole Levittown thing, where planned suburban communities explicitly prohibited selling homes to blacks.

  • dborchardt

    For someone who is admittedly uncomfortable with his lack of knowledge in this area, could you recommend a book or two of the most essential readings on the subject?

  • blackink12

    “One of the (many) things that hamper intelligent discussions of race is the fact that most Americans don’t even have an inkling of the extent to which American race history is marked by terrible violence directed towards African-Americans.

    Is it possible that this is willful ignorance? Or, on some level, revisionist history?

    Particularly here in the South, it’s tough for some people to even admit that slavery kinda, sorta, maybe had something to do with the cause of the Civil War. And after having that debate more than a few times, I’ve often wondered if we’re even have an honest discussion about the topic.

    Which bodes poorly for any sort of intelligent dialogue about race.

  • I might just be projecting my own learning curve onto the general population, but it seems to me that things like black political and social freedom in the immediate reconstruction era, the kkk and jim crow backlash, the role of lynching in disenfranchizing blacks and stealing property, redlining and so forth are slowly becoming more widely known–at least there have been a lot of books published in recent years about these things. Or is it just that educated whites like me, or at least some educated whites, are finally starting to learn some of the American history we didn’t get taught in schools? Were things like the political/economic role of lynching well-known to college-educated African-Americans, say, twenty or thirty years ago?

  • Right. But so was I aware of things like lynching and violence, for sure. (My folks were fans of the civil rights movement, and I went to a deliberately integrated elementary school where we learned a lot of elementary-age A-A history). But I didn’t make the connection between the violence and the effects/causes of the violence, beyond a kind of generalized idea that it was about prejudice and racism, until I was in my 30s, I think.

    (Which I think is part of why you have a lot of white folks who get defensive about history, or (as Blackink mentions above) deny that slavery had much to do with the civil war and so forth. If you understand the history of racism as being just about how white people felt, then you think of it as a *personal* thing: hence denial or guilt. But at least when racism or history has come up in courses I’ve taught, for instance, the white students can get past that personal reaction if/when you start talking about how this stuff *worked* and why the important issue isn’t whether or not white people are bad but the specific ways in which white people (good or bad) benefitted from economically disenfranchising blacks.)

  • Big Word

    When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson. Although this doesn’t deal with slavery (moreso with New Deal and Great Society policies of the 30′s and 60′s) it puts forth a compelling argument against the notion of ‘campaign against black progress’ even in times when everybody was more or less on the government dole.

  • Not at all a scholarly study, but the 70s-era young adult novel “Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry” is the one that most people (including me) immediately think of when they start reading serious history about antagonizing black wealth creation, as GD phrased it. It’s not about the mid-20th century, but rather the reconstruction era, and is about a property-owning family that local whites are trying to drive out–which happened a lot, and was a central job of the KKK.

  • Ink, all history is willful ignorance. All history is revision. Most every history book you have ever read was a revision of some earlier position. Most every history book you ahve ever read cannot deal with the comparitive possibilities of their topic. That is fine. People are not just born with a complete rolodex of everything that happened in life, while bad historians screwed that up. History is constructed and constantly engaging with the present. Some of the books that I think are hot right now are going to be proven wrong (and I do mean PROVEN, with primary sources and keen analysis). If humans actually knew (or were even capable of knowing) the history of all of humanity, then I might be angrier about it. Rather people have to be able to differentiate between the past, history, and the truth, because they are not the same thing. If current debates about race are in need of a broader historical context, what is the limit of that context? Ideas of race in the United States have had a long and complicated history, rather than a straight line of continuous white vs other that is often deployed when people actively call for more groundings in history. They tend to ‘use’ the history they want to use (which is completely understandable). While Howard Zinn might claim history as a weapon (and it has been used as such, to be sure), the logical extension of such logic is that history is a choice (which it is kind of now even without the Marxists), while our everlasting and highly imperfect quest for the truth is shunted aside.

    Having said that, if an imperfect history is needed for an intelligent dialogue about race, I can put my intellectual qualms aside.

  • Kia

    The documentary Banished http://www.newsreel.org/nav/title.asp?tc=CN0211 is a very compelling look at the violence that was waged against prosperous black communities.

  • I can’t speak to whether or not things like the political/economic role of lying were well-known to college-educated African-Americans back in the day, my hunch though, is that they were at least aware of the stories of lynchings and violence against black communities, since these stories are passed down (at least, that’s how I first learned of lynchings and such).

  • Grump

    Right, once the historical analysis of racism has gone from the personal to the systematic, then you have this realization about just how bad things really were. And yes, these events were known by college educated African-Americans, but they weren’t scholarly investigated on such a large scale because, of course, it wsn’t until 20-30 years ago that such events were accepted as something worthwhile to study.

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