The Racists Are Losing

Over 50,000 protestors fill the Ben Franklin Parkway in a march for racial justice, June 6, 2020. (Tyger Williams/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP).

This is an optimist’s case for the following proposition: one of the dumbest and deadliest inventions humans have ever devised is getting its butt kicked. Folks, the racists are losing.

We may come to remember the Trump presidency as a pathetically weak attempt to roll back the cultural, demographic, and ideological change that is rising to a nearly inexorable force. The effort to Make America Racist Again has already failed miserably. Give it another four years and it will still fail.

To drive home the point that my optimism does not rest in this year’s election results, I’m posting this before knowing whether or not Trump has been defeated. My case for optimism certainly doesn’t rest in the election of a longtime moderate Democrat with a habit of cozying up to white supremacist senators back in the day. My hope does not depend on whether this Trump interlude proves to be of the four or eight year variety. My optimism rests in a broader global-historical sweep of the twentieth century.

At the dawn of that century, Senator Ben Tillman stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said this: “We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it…The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do.” Some might have deplored Senator Tillman’s candor but, as the kids say these days, where was the lie?

A century ago, racism was the coordinating principle of global affairs. W.E.B. Du Bois indulged no idle speculation when he wrote, “Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement ‘I am white,’ the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?” The world-embracing hubris of it is what most stood out to Du Bois. People had found reasons to dominate each other since the dawn of time. But now, Europeans and their settler state descendants had not only come up with a bizarre conspiracy theory called whiteness, they used it to organize society and politics across the globe!

The ideology of whiteness fueled ecstatic visions of earthly conquest as divine calling. From Afrikaner ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church to prominent social gospelers in the United States, many white Protestants eagerly awaited the consummation of God’s plan, when their divinely chosen white race would fulfill its mission. Josiah Strong supposed that “God, with infinite wisdom and skill,” was “training the Anglo-Saxon race” for the day it would “spread itself over the earth.” In that glorious day the “inferior tribes” would be revealed as “only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” These days, the Christians imagined as white are more likely to be embarrassed and uneasy about it than to be carried away by fanciful flights of eschatological genocide.

Horror at the depths to which racism could take humanity in the Holocaust, and even more important, the challenge of anti-racist and independence movements all across the Global South in the second half of the twentieth century, dealt a body blow to white supremacy from which it has never recovered. Henceforth, denial moved more than ever before to the very center of racist ideology. As the late George Fredrickson pointed out, the Holocaust was so discrediting that the classic racist position is not to defend it, but to deny it had ever happened!

To be sure, denial has always been part of any racial order, even the most brutal ones. The paternalist defense of slavery, for example, provided the planter a psychological shield when his brutalized conscience accused him. And Germans carried out their genocide more in a spirit of fear than hatred. Indeed one might say racism is denial. As Frederick Douglass put it in one of the great speeches of American history, “Man is man, the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”

Our case for optimism, then, must not ultimately rest in the perennially confused psychology of the racist. But the centrality of denial, its organizing role both on the level of psychology and systems, seems to me relatively new. And, crucially, it suggests an exhausted ideology. Racism is losing its power to inspire, much less organize coherent political projects.

The idea that the horrors of the Holocaust discredited racist ideology has often been overdrawn (indeed, I’ve made this case myself elsewhere). If racism was no longer fashionable, a disturbingly large number of Europeans missed the memo. In the 1960s, during my parents’ lifetime, the Portuguese dictatorship busily sent tens of thousands of white settlers to Angola in a classic case of racist settler colonial domination. In the 1980s, during my lifetime, racist South African security forces and commando units wreaked havoc across southern Africa. A British Commonwealth committee estimated they contributed to 1 million deaths and made 3 million people homeless. But these political projects have been so thoroughly discredited that people are shocked to discover they even existed in a world so close to our own.

Even in the most obvious state of exception in a decolonizing world, South Africa, denial ruled the day. The regime not only portrayed itself as a bulwark against communism. It established native “homelands” and granted them fictive “independence” in an elaborate bid to deny and obfuscate the essentially racist character of the apartheid state. Even the prototypical exemplars of modern racist social organization did not want to admit what they were doing.

And so this stark fact remains: racism crested in the era of global war and has receded through the era of decolonization, civil rights movements, and the rise of global human rights.

Against this sweeping historical change, what do the racists offer? In 2017 a motley crew of a few hundred demonstrated in Charlottesville before one of their number launched a terrorist attack and killed Heather Heyer. Organizers promptly retreated, concluding they had made a strategic error because the American public was so revolted. Trump’s equivocations about the terrorists became a political albatross rather than a source of strength. He and his enablers quickly spun new tales of denial to try to bury the episode.

Terrorists used to be able to take over whole states and defy the federal government to do anything about it. Now their would-be sympathizers recoil in disgust. I know the headlines often seem scary today, reading of proud boys and boogaloos and militias. But these lonely cosplayers can only dream of the power and acclaim racists like themselves used to amass a short time ago. Social media is not our friend in our efforts to achieve perspective. A Florida man yelling “white power!” as he rides by on his golf cart is not the stuff of which racist revolutions are made. For racists, times are hard, even with one of their own in the oval office.

Trump’s invocations of racism have often been startlingly old-fashioned. This is, I admit, infuriating. From the blood and soil nationalism evoked in the “send her back” chants, to playing on stereotypical racist fears of racial pollution through rape and housing integration, to crafting an immigration policy of which even the Dillingham commission could be proud, it often seemed as if Trump was trying to play racism’s greatest hits. Yet even as his fans got a thrill out of it, they experienced this pleasure within a carefully maintained framework of denial. Not only did they deny the fact that they had joined a racist movement, they continued to imagine that they didn’t like racism at all.

Anti-racists often treat this stunning blindness as a sign of racism’s entrenched position in American life. From one vantage point that’s true. This “colorblind racism” often feels intractable, and it really does cause profound pain and suffering for people of color, not to mention psychological strain for white people. But from another vantage point, this denial is a flashing red light declaring that racism as an ideological project is exhausted. These folks aren’t even good at hating people anymore. Their heart isn’t all the way in it.

A century ago—far less, in fact—populist demagogues could mobilize a crowd with a proud message of white supremacy till kingdom come. Now, even Trump’s most loyal mass constituency—white evangelical Christians—declares an avowed belief in a brand of Christian universalism. Christ died for all and anyone who accepts Jesus as savior is headed to the same heavenly destination. The doors of the church are open to all, regardless of color. Believe me, I’ll be the first to say this Christian universalism tends to be remarkably immune to practical ethical content, but I argue it does make these white Christians feel cross-pressured. Their racism makes them uncomfortable. This is not a confident ideology ready to make new converts. It’s a tired and fearful perspective on the world, and the demographic groups most likely to cling to it are shrinking.

My students at Temple University are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Their families come from India and Vietnam, Cameroon and Armenia. They tell me they’re prepared to disrupt racism. The historian in me says this is the conceit of the young. But then, maybe I’m not thinking historically enough. Is it really so hard to believe that the most diverse and racially integrated generation in American history will turn out to be the most anti-racist generation?

I’ve been skeptical that the massive black lives matter protests of this summer signify much. But let’s at least stipulate this: never in American history have so many people of such diverse backgrounds come together to demand racial justice. It remains to be seen how much this will matter in the long run, but for now, let’s take a moment to be grateful this good thing has happened.

The burden of an optimist’s case is that it must not become another species of the denial it claims to critique. It must not descend to that point of wishful nonsense where, as Kimberlé Crenshaw has put it, “sober assessments of how far we have come” are replaced “by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived.”

From racist policing to a yawning wealth gap that shows no sign of closing, racism remains an urgent burden that is a matter of life and death in the present day. Most worryingly for the future, these material forces are reproducing race as we speak. The future will belong to the anti-racists insofar as we put a wrench directly into these systems of power and finally interrupt the reproduction of their ideological justification. This is what freedom movements across the global south did. They didn’t wait around for Europeans to have a change of heart. They served notice the old systems of power weren’t coming back and they ushered the racists off the stage to the margins of history. Many a racist settler died embittered and resentful. For the world’s future it didn’t matter if they never learned their lesson. What mattered is that they were pushed to the sidelines where their racism no longer commanded armies and bureaucracies.

The racists are losing. This is a case for optimism, not complacency. The only thing that ever moved the world toward freedom was people acting together to make power, take power, and use it to free human beings from domination. In the fog of war it can be hard to tell if one is fighting a depleted enemy in a rear-guard action, or a well-supplied force waging the next phase of a long campaign. Trumpism is a desperate defense of an exhausted and pathetic ideology. In its heyday, racism killed millions and held the globe in its thrall. Today, it’s the succor of a lonely man and his feeble hangers-on. They, too, will be ushered off the stage of history.

Yes, Lord, so may it be.

Notes from the Classroom: The Stickiness of National Myth

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Arthur Boyd. Persecuted Lovers. 1957. Australia. A painting rich in settler colonial themes.

How is my settler colonialism experiment going? The results in the first two weeks of class have been intriguing. My students who have been in the U.S. for any length of time came into the classroom with some intuitive familiarity with the nation of immigrants story. And I don’t think it was hard for them to understand that the story functions as more than a statement of historical fact—that it is also a statement of national identity and exceptionalism. So what would happen if I begin the class by bombarding them for two weeks with a completely different story? What if the United States was and is a colonial state whose foundations are in the conquest and dispossession of indigenous people?

I even had them read Mahmood Mamdani on settler colonialism this week (it was too hard for most of them and maybe I shouldn’t have assigned it). Mamdani confronts the question of American exceptionalism head on and argues that what makes the U.S. exceptional is that it is the first modern settler colonial state and it still hasn’t decolonized. So the students had, on the one hand, a traditional immigrant story of national identity. On the other hand, they had been exposed to a settler colonial narrative, culminating in Mamdani’s forceful critique of traditional exceptionalist narratives. Before breaking into small groups I gave them one more argument: what if the settler colonial story is historically sound, but civically destructive? What if it doesn’t produce good citizens? What if it harms the civic fabric? What if it doesn’t promote patriotism? (I don’t agree with this argument but I didn’t tell them that).

With these narratives and arguments swirling around, the students broke into groups to discuss whether or not the nation of immigrants narrative should still be used as the (or a) defining American story. If so, why? If not, what would they replace it with? After all, we’re going to tell ourselves stories about the past. You don’t get to rip up one narrative and offer nothing in return.

What surprised me—though it probably shouldn’t have—was that the large majority of students, especially in the first section, very much wanted to retain the nation of immigrants story. To be clear, I was not bothered by the conclusion. I was concerned that many students were disagreeing with Mamdani without realizing that they were doing so, or knowing why. I was pleased with their disagreement, but I hoped it came with awareness. Did students consider various angles on the question and adopt a deliberate perspective? Or did two weeks of alternative narratives just bounce off? Of course, all of this is shaped by my own failures of teaching. Their lack of understanding is my lack of communicating. I’m learning a lot. I only hope many of the students can say the same.

As students in the first section fought to retain the nation of immigrants narrative, I was struck by how often they spoke of it as inclusive and inspiring, only to quickly hedge their statement with “well” or “but” or “except.” Native Americans don’t exactly fit in this story, they admitted. Most African Americans didn’t come here willingly, they pointed out. But they wanted the narrative anyway. This led me to two takeaways:

First, isn’t history controversial precisely because we want to use it for very different things? Nations want it to establish identity and destiny and patriotism. Individuals want it to affirm their ancestors. Historians may want it to drive an ideological agenda in the present (yes, busted, it’s true!). But more importantly, historians’ desire to understand what happened and why is an agenda in its own right that puts us at odds with other uses of the past. Are the basic assumptions and desires of historians subversive to nation-states? Perhaps.

Second, we come back around to settler colonial theory. From a settler colonial framework, of course we’re having trouble finding a story that is at once inclusive, inspiring, and accurate. These are stories of national identity. And the whole point is that there are other nations within U.S. borders that claim their sovereignty and assert that their relationship to the United States is a colonial one. Why would they want to be conscripted into another nation’s identity myth? They have their own.

This basic recognition in American public life would go part way toward the decolonization Mamdani is talking about. If you’re still wondering what the big deal is, here’s a really nice piece from a Christian historian explaining why he doesn’t say “we’re a nation of immigrants” anymore. My goal was not to bring my students to a predetermined outcome of discarding the immigrant narrative. Rather, if they choose to embrace that narrative, I hope they do so with greater awareness of its implications and the arguments against it. But if I take seriously the notion that these stories are narrations of our own identities, then it’s hardly surprising that they have enormous staying power.

Preserving Monuments, Erasing History

namibia-monument

Over the weekend, the New York Times had a fascinating article about a statue in Namibia commemorating (yes, commemorating) Germany’s colonial genocide against the Herero and Nama over a century ago. Now, as some Namibians demand the statue’s removal, controversy has flared:

The push for the removal comes as the governments of Germany and Namibia are engaging in negotiations to close one of the grimmest chapters in Africa’s colonial history, the genocide of tens of thousands of Herero and Nama between 1904 and 1908. After decades of denial, German officials say they are ready to acknowledge the genocide formally, issue an apology and offer compensation.

German reticence is not the only reason the reckoning has taken so long. Namibia’s complicated internal dynamics have contributed as well. The Herero and Nama are minorities in a nation led since independence by the liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organization, or Swapo, which is dominated by the Ovambo ethnic group. If Swapo has historically shown little interest in highlighting the colonial-era genocide, Namibia’s tiny but economically powerful German-speaking minority has shown strong resistance.

A desert city facing the Atlantic, Swakopmund is the center of Namibia’s German-speaking minority. It has what is perhaps the best collection of well-preserved colonial buildings in Africa, as well as a Bismarck Street and other thoroughfares named after German figures. Menus in hotels and restaurants are in German, catering to Namibia’s German minority as well as to German tourists.

The whole article is worth reading. Remembering the past—however we remember it—is a political act with contemporary significance. Historical narratives cannot be separated from the workings of power in the present. For some of Namibia’s German minority, an attack on the monument is an attack on their identity. If there is no place for the monument in modern Namibia, is there a place for them?

This brings to mind recent battles in the United States over Confederate monuments and the Confederate flag. One common argument in support of the monuments is that we must not “erase history.” This sounds reasonable on the surface but actually evades the real issue. Usually, the most ardent defenders of Confederate monuments are also the most committed to false historical narratives. Their myths and their identities have been shaped by these monuments. If they are taken down, more accurate historical narratives threaten to gain influence.

In Namibia, the German defenders of the monument are also the deniers of the genocide. They are trying to preserve an artifact of history precisely so that they might erase history. Provincial preservationism often works at cross-purposes with efforts to responsibly remember the past. Placing the monument in a museum would better serve both the narrow preservationist aim and the broader goal of historical accuracy.

Notes from the Classroom: Are We A Nation of Immigrants?

nyc-liberty

This semester I am teaching two sections of a class called Immigration and the American Dream. I didn’t make the title. Most of the students will be freshman and sophomores, and most of them will not be history majors. As I think about what I want this course to be, I’m grappling with the perceptions of immigration and history my students might have as they enter the classroom on the first day. To speak of Immigration and the American Dream is, I think, to conjure images of the Statue of Liberty, of poor huddled masses yearning to be free, of an exceptional nation made up of freedom-loving people from all over the world. It brings to mind a claim that is practically a part of our civic religion: America is a nation of immigrants.

In structuring the course, part of what I’m setting out to do is to help the students think critically about the “nation of immigrants” narrative. Some students may walk into the classroom with this narrative embedded in their thinking as a kind of common sense:

Of course the United States is a nation of immigrants.

I want to provoke students with the possibility that this simple phrase is not so much a statement of historical fact as it is an ideological claim deployed for specific purposes. Many immigrants have come to the United States; that’s true! But to speak of a nation of immigrants is to make a claim about what kind of country the United States is and what it means. It’s a claim about how the United States is different from, and better than, other countries.

Many historians are uncomfortable with immigration as the defining American story because of the obvious groups it appears to leave out: Native Americans and African Americans. Trying to shoehorn these groups into a nation of immigrants narrative is not an adequate solution.

The better approach might be two foreground the encounters and systems that provided the necessary foundation of mass immigration. To try to do that, I am planning to incorporate a significant amount of transnational history and settler colonial theory¹ in the course. Will it work? I don’t know! But it will be an interesting experiment.

A settler colonial framework takes the conquest of Native American lands not as a given, but as the essential and ongoing act of violence that enabled the American experiment. A settler colonial framing better enables us to see that the nation of immigrants was possible because–and only because–of violence and dispossession on an extraordinary scale. Invasion and conquest, enslavement and expropriation, preceded and accompanied migration.

Lorenzo Veracini has theorized a model in which settler colonial states tend to have a “triangular relationship” between settlers, indigenous groups, and “exogenous others.” While settler states often exclude these exogenous groups in various ways, they may also selectively include them over time, allowing them to become, in effect, “probationary settlers.” Precisely because they are imagined as having no prior claim to land, such groups can potentially be incorporated into the settler colonial polity.² For all the discrimination exogenous groups such as Irish and Italians faced, they were always potential settlers.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886. It was the beacon that would greet millions of Eastern European “probationary settlers” in the era of mass immigration at the turn of the century. That same year, the United States Army continued its campaign of conquest in the west, attacking Native Americans and seizing the land that some of those probationary settlers would one day occupy. Immigration was not only the familiar flight from European squalor to the shores of American opportunity. It was invasion; it was opportunity for some and dispossession for others.

As students encounter this framework, they can hopefully begin to understand that it is not the way to understand the history of American immigration, but a way to do so. In the process, the nation of immigrants story is not debunked, but is dislodged from its commonsense status. If I’m lucky, students might get a taste of looking at the same event with two sets of glasses, and have an “Aha!” moment as it dawns on them that both sets of glasses help them see something important about the world.

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¹See Patrick Wolfe’s 2001 article, “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race,” in the American Historical Review.

²Lorenzo Veracini, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).