White people want to find heroes among their ancestors and this shapes marketing campaigns, archival practices

American celebrity Ben Affleck was invited to be a guest on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,”  but the slave-owning ancestory the genealogical researchers discovered in his lineage got scrubbed from the show at Affleck’s request, leaked emails have revealed. The show’s host, Harvard Professor of History Skip Gates, along with the show’s producers, acquiesced to Affleck’s request, saying they chose to focus on “the most interesting” aspects of the star’s background including “a Revolutionary War ancestor, a third great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for civil rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.” It was these elements of Affleck’s life that were part of the fall 2014 episode when it aired. The show would have easily slipped from popular attention and memory except for the leaked emails charting Affleck’s attempt – and Gates’ complicity – in hiding these facts. In a statement released in the aftermath of the leak, Affleck said he regrets the move and said  “I was embarrassed” by the revelation of slave-owning ancestors. (A subsequent report quibbles with the claim of ‘ownership’ – but the overall facts of Affleck’s ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade remain unchanged.)

The reality that Affleck couldn’t face personally scales to a social level. In the U.S., there are hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people alive today who are the direct descendants of slave-owners and millions of others who benefit from this architecture of inequality. In fact, as a growing field of historical scholarship demonstrates once more that slavery gave capitalism its start. All of our lives are shaped by the legacy of slavery in this country, as Heather McGhee recently pointed out.  The legacy of slavery also shows up in how we approach ancestry work, in how it is sold to us, and in how ancestry archives are created.

The Business of ‘Roots’ 

Make no mistake, once the domain of hobbyists genealogy is now big business. People spend upwards of a billion dollars each year at sites like MyHeritage.com, FindMyPast.com, and Ancestry.com.  Affleck, like many non-famous people, wanted and perhaps expected to find heroes among his ancestors. Marketing campaigns for genealogy firms help perpetuate this mythology of heroic white ancestors, whether for ancestry-themed television shows like PBS’ “Finding Your Roots,” or TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” or for the online databases themselves. The television program “Who Do you Think You Are,” is actually produced by Ancestry.com, making it, in effect, one big commercial for the online database. (For scholarship on “Who Do You Think You Are,” see Kramer, 2011, and a more extensive, but still partial, review of the ancestry literature here.).

‘Discover Your Family Heroes’ 

The marketing from the online genealogical juggernautAncestry.com encourages people to “find the heroes in your family” by searching publicly-available analog records that have been digitized and locked behind the proprietary paywalls that Ancestry.com engineers have created. Scholar Graeme Davison wonders if this transformation in family history research may be subtly changing what was once a kind of secular pilgrimage into a series of financial transactions. But the pursuit of family history in these online databases are not the same for everyone. In the Australian context, the iconography of their advertisements suggest that would-be researchers “Discover your family heroes” in honor of ANZAC Day, an Australian and New Zealand commemoration of World War I.

"Discover your family heroes"

Ancestry.com ad: “Discover your family heroes”

Such an ad assumes the prospective researcher is a white person and aligns the “heroic” past with the settler-colonial history. At the same time, it excludes the indigenous and aboriginal Australians and New Zealanders from the pursuit of this digital genealogical quest.

There are similar ads for U.S.-based audiences, which feature exclusively or mostly white images of soldiers, alongside the caption, “Discover the heroes in your family.” As with the Australian context, this kind of image suggests a heroic past of settler colonialism that denies the indigenous experience of Native Americans.

‘Ancestors Worthy of a Status Update’ 

As Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang have pointed out in “Roots and Revelation” (2012), genealogical research was once predominantly the pursuit of older people, but social media status-sharing is driving renewed interest in searches that are then shared online. In their work, Nelson and Hwang focus on the “revelation” on YouTube, similar to the “reveal” in reality-based television program, when African American roots-searchers share their DNA results suggesting where their ancestors where from. Savvy marketers know this and are leveraging this connection in ads like this one:

Find Status-Update-Worthy Ancestors

Ancestry.com ad: “Find ancestors worthy of a status update”

 

But, as researchers at Stanford have found — and probably anyone with a Facebook account can attest — there is a skew toward “happy news only” on Facebook, that has a negative impact on us. This kind of tilt toward happy-news-only is also built into the archives that online databases like Ancestry.com draw on for their service.

‘The 1870 Wall’

The business people behind online genealogical tools also want to market to researchers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, but these researchers are confronted by gaps in the historical record. For many African Americans, genealogical research that relies on official documents is difficult, if not impossible, because there simply are no records. Their ancestor were not regarded as full citizens – nor fully human beings – worthy of record keeping. This painful past presents a marketing dilemma for online databases like Ancestry.com.  They are undaunted, however, refering to this gap in records euphemistically as  ‘The 1870 Wall’ – by which of course, they mean that prior to that time African Americans were enslaved to other Americans and there was often incomplete data.

Ancestry ad - African American face the 1870 wall

Ancestry.com ad: “African Americans face the 1870 wall”

Given the history of very real history of material oppression and diaspora, finding documentation and crafting stories out of those documents can be a form of resistance by reclaiming some of what has been erased. Stories like the inspirational Delaney sisters memoir Having our Say (later a Broadway play), draw on oral history to re-tell the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation through a retrospective lens of triumph over evil. But there is much that is missing from the digital archives at online genealogical databases.

The Wall Hiding White (heterosexual) Supremacy in the Archives

The archival practices that form the basis of the popular genealogical databases help perpetuate a one-sided retrospective reading of history, in which white people are configured as paragons of virtue.  Missing from most of these online databases are any systematic records of slave-owners, of Klan membership, organizers of lynch mobs, or bank executives that decided on red-lining and racial segregation. It is possible to create searchable online databases from existing records for these kinds of records.

Legacies of British Slave-owners

Source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/

The University College of London has done precisely this with their Legacies of British Slave-ownership, but this database is not integrated into any of the main genealogical services, nor is there a U.S. counterpart to this. It could be different – Ancestry.com or other services like this – could develop these databases or acquire them, but it’s unlikely given the desire to “find the heroes” in the family. It’s many ways, it’s similar to narratives of the Holocaust, in which everyone imagines themselves to be the descendants of the heroic Schindler, of  “Schindler’s List,”  rather than descendants of an SS officer. (And of course, Spielberg’s version of this history is an altered and sanitized version that ignores Schindler’s collaboration with the Third Reich.)

The default genealogical researcher invited to create a ‘family tree’ at the LDS-created Ancestry.com is also heterosexual. Within the past few years, a growing series of complaints have noted that people who want to record marriages of family members who are the same sex cannot because the software won’t record the union. Which is to say, the family tree database won’t allow users to report a marriage unless it takes place between a man and a woman. In addition to offering a very heteronormative view of our current times, it makes it impossible to find queerness historically.

What this lopsided collection of material in the commercially available genealogical archives means is that the casual individual (white) researcher is unlikely to stumble upon any “bad news” about their ancestors. To find those connections to slave-owning ancestors – or Klan members, or organizers of lynching mobs or bank executives drawing red-lines on a map, that is, to find the legacies of how white ancestors contributed to building the architecture of white supremacy, you really have to dig deep. Or, in the case of celebrities like Ben Affleck, have someone else dig deep for you. Pity he wasn’t able to face up to what a team of genealogical researchers found for him.

Facing History, Facing our Families

With rising popularity of genealogical research, and the increasing availability of digitized databases, it is likely that even if they are hard to find for the individual researcher, we will have more revelations of prominent people with slave-owning pasts and their connections to descendants of people once enslaved by their families. Recently, reporters learned that the slave-owning ancestors of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch are also the ancestors of NYC Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch. This brings discussions of slavery, rape, ownership, colonialism and racism front-and-center into contemporary politics and popular culture, and in general, we are ill-equipped to deal with these discussions. One news outlet ran a Cumberbatch-related story with the headline, “Should Benedict Cumberbatch say sorry for the slave-owners in his family?” 

 

Stacey Cumberbatch

Stacey Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

In 2007, the news carried a number of reports that genealogical researchers uncovered a connection between the families of Rev. Al Sharpton, African American civil rights leader, and Strom Thurmond, former U.S. Senator and ardent segregationist. While Sharpton was open to and intrigued by this revelation, Thurmond’s descendants’ response has been denial and, then ultimately, silence. In the wake of his discovery that his family had once been owned by Strom Thurmond’s family, Al Sharpton said: “I wrote my name and … had to come to terms with the fact that this was a name given to me by slaveholders.” The Thurmond family issued no similar statement reflecting on their slaveholding past. The different responses from Sharpton and Thurmond’s family reflect the asymmetry in excavating the racial past.

It’s incredibly rare to see a white person who looks this history in the face and tells the story. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Ed Ball traces his family lineage to their slave-owning past, in his Slaves in the Famiily. Tom DeWolf and members of his family do it in the documentary Traces of the Trade, and Mab Segrest does it in her book, Memoir of a Race Traitor.

Even on Gates’“Finding Your Roots,”  CNN Anchor and New Year’s Eve bon vivant Anderson Cooper learned on the show that his family, the Vanderbilts, were slave owners. Unlike Affleck, Cooper allowed producers to leave this fact in the show, which they highlighted as a “discovery of a dark past”. Cooper, for his part, said that he was “ashamed” to learn this.

Given the history of racial oppression and white domination, doing ancestry work is an asymmetrical process that has a differential effect in the present depending upon one’s standpoint. For those who were victims of oppressive systems, revisiting history as Weems does in her work, reclaims those lives and resituates them in a different context. While for those who have been architects and benefactors of oppressive systems, such as Affleck, revisiting a history of unearned privilege based on racial inequality may result in shame at what their ancestors perpetrated as white slaveowners.

 

 

 

Danny Glover reads Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July 4th”

This time of year, we commemorate the famous speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” written by Frederick Douglass and delivered in Rochester, NY on July 5, 1852.

In this famous speech, Douglass says:

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”

You can read the full text of Dougalss’ speech here.  Danny Glover read Douglass’ famous speech in 2005 at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, California, captured in this short video(6:06):

Glover’s reading was part of Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s book Voices of a People’s History of the United StatesMore video clips can be found at the Voices of a People’s History website and in the film The People Speak.

Juneteenth — Marking the End of Slavery

Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. As you may already know, the news of the Emancipation proclamation came late two months late to Texas, and the holiday is meant to mark the arrival of that news. What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration. Yet, that celebration is a bittersweet one given what the reality of emancipation must have been, according to a new scholarly book.

 

(Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900,image source)

According to a new book, Sick From Freedom (Oxford University Press), by Jim Downs (Assistant Professor, Connecticut College), emancipation from slavery was also a health crisis for those formerly enslaved. A health crisis that has been largely ignored both by whites at the time and by mostly white historians since then.

At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.

To do this research, Downs sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the former slaves, as a “race,” were doomed to extinction.

And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where I see a connection to much of the research that I’ve done on racism in the digital era. One of the ways that white supremacists and others not working against racial justice frame their discourse, is to talk about “slavery as a humane institution.” Just to be clear, it would mean coming to the wrong conclusion to read Downs’ work as implying that slavery was better than emancipation. It wasn’t. Emancipation was a moral and a material victory in every sense. And yet, at the same time, it was complicated by the crushing inequality and brutal continuation of racism after the official end of slavery that guaranteed that oppression manifested itself in the bodies and under the skin of the formerly enslaved. Even when the physical shackles were removed, there were a hundred ways that people could still be oppressed by the lack of food, housing, and clean running water.

So, when I see those historical photos of early Juneteenth celebrations (like the one above), and I see how small and sober these events seem, I think what a bittersweet moment that must have been – celebrating emancipation and commemorating all those that didn’t make it, whether in the Middle Passage, or who were too sick to finally enjoy freedom.

 

 

[reposted from 2012]

The Legal and Moral Basis for Reparations

I recently did an op-ed piece for time.com here, on reparations. It begins thus:

Unjust enrichment, and its counterpart, unjust impoverishment, give rise to the idea of restitution. As recently as 2009, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution belatedly apologizing for this country’s oppression of African Americans: “The Congress (A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws.”

Sadly, these mostly white senators added a disclaimer explicitly barring African Americans from seeking reparations for the role of the government in this officially recognized oppression. Reparations is an issue that arises sporadically because of the three-plus centuries of slavery and Jim Crow on which this country is founded, and one that Ta-Nehisi Coates revives in this month’s Atlantic Monthly.

See the rest for time.com here”>here:

#ENDITMOVEMENT: Social Media Activism, without Action

My current sociological research looks at the way millennials and digital natives (the subsequent generational cohort) use social media to construct identity in their everyday lives. One of the questions that I asked over the course of my ethnography was “Have you ever participated in a social issue campaign beyond reposting or retweeting about it on social media? If so, in what ways?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “No, I usually just retweet or repost it.”

I believe whole-heartedly in the power of awareness but as Mark Warren, the author of Fire in the Heart How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice puts it, “If we stop at moral impulse, we are left with altruism.”

The leaders of the End It movement seem to understand this on a rudimentary level but the same cannot be said about all of their followers and supporters. When I saw the red x’s on several of my students’ hands, I asked them about it. I said, “What type of slavery?” “Where is this slavery taking place?” “What can I do personally?” No one could reasonably answer any of those questions. When I asked, “Did you, or are you going to, donate money?” one person responded, “The hope is that people will eventually donate money.” “Where will the money go? What will they do with it?” My questions remained unanswered. They could only tell me that the red x’s were supposed to cause people to ask questions so that they could spread the word about world-wide slavery. When I asked questions, the message of freedom was not explained very thoroughly at all. Uninformed awareness is just as bad as unawareness itself.

This is a trend that I see in many social issue campaigns that take place on and through the aid of social media. While the so-called freedom fighters are undoubtedly well-intentioned, I see several issues with the way the message is constructed as well as with the proposed solutions. Beyond the social construction of the movement being somewhat lofty and ungrounded, I fear that the initiators of these types movements are merely banking on the other-directed vulnerability of millennials and digital natives. Social psychologists Wang, Tchernev, and Solloway cite users’ need to mitigate their self- image and the need to be affirmed by their peers, amongst two of the four main reasons why users engage with social media. Social media allows users to fulfill these needs as often as they want. Additionally, Quinn and Oldmeadow found that social media use by younger users helps ease the tensions that can be present during major transitional periods in life. Anyone with the right formula could amass a large following not because the people truly believed in the cause, but due to the nature of social media.

Beyond the primary issue with social media movements, I was underwhelmed with the lack of information I was presented with on the home page. The white savior narrative is prevalent and problematic and is reified throughout the page. Let me be clear, there is significant value in people of every race and nationality participating in a cause that is valid however there is a problem with the way the people are depicted on the site and on the Twitter feed. In the promotional video, the camera quickly pans over the people who are portrayed as either currently trapped in some sort of slavery or are survivors of it. The message is unclear. Again it is not the whiteness that I see as problematic, it is the underrepresentation of the people that the movement is trying to help. Where are these people? Why aren’t their voices heard most loudly and clearly? Visitors must go to the very last tab in the list – the “learn” tab, to watch the longer video which allows the audience to hear from persons who were formerly enslaved.

Enditmovement.com presents a dominant narrative instead of taking on a supporting role in the goal of liberation. Further, it does not do an adequate job of informing visitors about the roots of slavery and perhaps unintentionally hides the real issues at hand. The United States is one of the greatest catalysts of sex-slavery. The United States accounts for a large portion of the 32 billion dollars generated by sex slavery. The United Nations states that the U.S. is amongst the most common destinations for sex trafficking. We are producers of the enslavement that this movement is trying to fight. Though users can find this information on the site if they search for it, this information is vital to our understanding of this type of slavery and it is completely missing from the home page.

What is not missing, however, is the blatant consumerism. The tabs that allow you to learn more about the organizations who are being supported are neatly nested at the bottom of the page. Instead, upon a first encounter with the page, visitors are encouraged to visit the store to buy the gear and “be the billboard”. A lot of digging must be done to find the “slavery facts”. The average user is not very likely to go to the “learn” tab. Once found, the research is valid and points to a substantial problem in our global society. It also includes a list of sources and suggested readings however my students seemed to have missed the mark and settled for being aware but uneducated. I fear that this is the case for a majority of the red x bearers.

Perhaps the End It movement could be as powerful as it aims to be if it were to take on Gideon Sjoberg’s countersystem approach. “A countersystem analyst consciously tries to step outside of her or his own society in order to better view and critically asses it. … These critical social thinkers support the action of human beings in their own liberation” (Quoted in Feagin and Vera 2008:2).

As a Christian sociologist, I often find myself at an impasse. I strive to love people in my daily life and I recognize the desire to be a part of something that is bigger than one’s self. I do see validity in the core purpose of the #enditmovement. However my grounding in sociology makes it easy for me to see through the inauthenticity that can exist in “viral” movements on social media. I want to call everyone who believes themselves to be passionate about the liberation of all enslaved or marginalized peoples – religious or not – to inform yourself and others about the facts. Then use your knowledge to act beyond the confines of the screen.

Guest blogger Apryl Williams is a sociology graduate student at Texas A&M University.

White Sexual Violence against Enslaved Black Women

Historians have estimated that at least 58% of all enslaved women between 15 and 30 years of age were sexually assaulted by white men during the antebellum period. In addition to the white male privilege and power evident in this extensive routine rape of black female slaves, the reactions of white women to their husbands’ sexual behavior helped perpetuate racial and gender subordination as well as white privilege.

White women reacted to sexual violence perpetrated against enslaved black women by their husbands in a variety of ways including ignoring or denying the behavior, divorcing their husbands, or punishing the enslaved black women who were sexually victimized. These reactions are repeated throughout a variety of records from slavery including Work Projects Administration slave narratives, divorce petitions, autobiographical slave narratives, and diaries.

For white women, the legal structure created some incentives to stay quiet about their husbands’ sexual violation of enslaved black women. During the 1800’s, a variety of state courts declared that a man had the right to execute “moderate chastisement” of his wife “in cases of emergency,” such as the Mississippi Supreme Court in Bradley v. State in 1824. The white male dominated structure of the legal, political, and economic system was crucial to white women’s responses to their husbands’ sexual violence against slaves. The desire to stay physically unharmed and financially secure likely encouraged many white women to remain silent about their husbands’ sexual behavior.

Mary Chesnut, an elite white woman living in the mid-1800’s described the denial of white women in her diary. She writes

every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds, or pretends so to think.

An anonymous former slave who was interviewed for the Work Projects Administration slave narratives wrote similarly,

Before my old marster died, he had a pretty gal he was goin’ with and he wouldn’t let her work nowhere but in the house, and his wife nor nobody else didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it; they knowed better. She had three chillun for him. . . .

Despite the potential consequences of speaking out against their husbands, some white women did file for divorce from their husbands often in large part because of the sexual “relationships” they had with enslaved black women. Through divorce petitions white women portrayed themselves as innocent victims of their husbands’ adultery. White women repeatedly overlooked the sexual violence and victimization of the enslaved black women coerced into their husbands’ “affairs.” Meanwhile they portrayed themselves as meeting the ideal standards of white womanhood, such as Margaret Garner from Mobile, Alabama who in 1841 petitioned for divorce explaining that she “calmly remonstrated” with her husband with regard to his affair or Mary Jackson from Georgia who treated her husband “Joseph with respect and affection and rendered due obedience to all the lawful commands.”

These women depict themselves as willfully submissive and obedient. Although the obedient, passive and loyal portrayals of themselves assisted white women in gaining divorces from their husbands as well as a portion of the economic resources in many cases; they simultaneously reinforced white gender roles and the white sexism that is associated. Moreover, when white women frame themselves as the sole victims of their husbands’ “affairs” with enslaved black women, they reinforce a narrative which focuses all attention on their own needs and the role of the court in protecting white women from men who have failed to achieve white male virtue, as opposed to acknowledging the needs of the black women who were sexually victimized and requiring of legal protection against rape.

Some white women also enacted a form of secondary abuse through physical and verbal punishment against the enslaved black women who had been sexually violated by white men. Through physical and verbal abuse, white women could transfer their feelings of humiliation, jealousy, or degradation into feelings of racial superiority over female slaves. Because white women were unable to enact any behaviors which would give them power over their white husbands this physical abuse directed at the enslaved black women simultaneously reflects the gender-subordinated and racially-privileged status that white women held. Not only did white women reinforce racial oppression through their responses, and lack of responses, to their husbands’ sexual violence, but they also reinforced their own oppression as white women by failing to resist the white male behaviors and white male dominated structures which ensure their gender subordination.

Today, although interracial rape of black women by white men has decreased significantly from the antebellum period, the intersecting institutions of oppression which shaped the identities and influenced the dynamics between white women, white men, black women, and black men persist. This raises the questions, in what ways are intersecting institutions of oppression creating incentives for some groups to partake in oppressive racial and gender performances and acts of domination today, and how does each group contribute to the overarching intersectional system of oppression?

Rachel is a Phd student doing her dissertation work on this issue of the extensive sexual coercion and rape of Black women by white men during the slavery era.

Capitalism and Systemic Racism: Oliver Cox’s Pioneering Work



In doing some research on capitalism and racism lately, I have been rethinking Oliver C. Cox’s pioneering and excellent Caste, Class, & Race; A Study in Social Dynamics book, which was first published in the late 1940s. It is still very much worth reading and learning from. It is available for free in various pdf and ereader formats for the Monthly Review Press edition here. (I use the Kindle formatting in quotes below.)

Oliver Cox was one of the few early black sociologists in the United States, and received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1938. He was a student of Robert Ezra Park, yet provided some of the deepest and most insightful critiques of Park, the early Chicago school, and Gunnar Myrdal’s famous An American Dilemma in this book, Caste, Class & Race. I highly recommend his analysis, both for its penetrating assessments and importance in sociological history.

One of the key figures historically in the Black Radical tradition, Oliver Cox was probably the first to argue in some detail that racist framing and exploitation arose in the various stages of modern capitalism:

Racial antagonism is part and parcel of this class struggle, because it developed within the capitalist system as one of its fundamental traits. It may be demonstrated that racial antagonism, as we know it today, never existed in the world before about 1492; moreover, racial feeling developed concomitantly with the development of our modem social system. Probably one of the most persistent social illusions of modem times is that we have race prejudice against other people because they are physically different—that race prejudice is instinctive. (Kindle Locations 461-487)

Modern race prejudice and framing is not instinctive but develops in the material context of early capitalism. Cox added that

The interest behind racial antagonism is an exploitative interest— the peculiar type of economic exploitation characteristic of capitalist society. To be sure, [a white person] might say this cannot be, for one feels an almost irrepressible revulsion in the presence of colored people, especially Negroes, although one never had any need to exploit them. It is evidently the way they look, their physical difference, which is responsible for one’s attitude. . . . [However] the individual is born into it and accepts it unconsciously, like his language, without question.

Racist prejudice and framing are learned in the broad material context of racial exploitation, and is generally accepted by most whites without question, even those who see themselves as uninvolved in exploitation. In this negative white racial framing black Americans

must not be allowed to think of themselves as human beings having certain basic rights protected in the formal law. On the whole, they came to America as forced labor, and our slavocracy could not persist without a consistent set of social attitudes which justified the system naturally. Negroes had to be thought of as subsocial and subhuman. To treat a slave as if he were a full-fledged human being would not only be dangerous but also highly inconsistent with the social system. (Kindle Locations 461-487).

Once put into place in the U.S. case, this racial prejudice and broader racial framing spread globally:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Kindle Locations 8327-8329).

Later on, he summarizes this way:

Race prejudice in the United States is the socio-attitudinal matrix supporting a calculated and determined effort of a white ruling class to keep some people or peoples of color and their resources exploitable. In a quite literal sense the white ruling class is the Negro’s burden; the saying that the white man will do anything for the Negro except get off his back puts the same idea graphically. It is the economic content of race prejudice which makes it a powerful and fearfully subduing force. . . . However, it is the human tendency, under capitalism, to break out of such a place, together with the determined counterpressure of exploiters, which produces essentially the lurid psychological complex called race prejudice. Thus race prejudice may be thought of as having its genesis in the propagandistic and legal contrivances of the white ruling class for securing mass support of its interest. (Kindle Locations 11973-11982).

. . . . [Whites] should not be distracted by the illusion of personal repugnance for a race. Whether, as individuals, [they] feel like or dislike for the colored person is not the crucial fact. What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose. The attitude abhors a personal or sympathetic relationship. (Kindle Locations 11990-11997).

Some 65 years ago, Cox vigorously argued that racial prejudice and framing are the results of concrete social and material contexts, not some psychological gremlins inherent in all human beings. And they destroy personal and empathetic relationships. These early classics are indeed well worth reading again today.

Idolizing Thomas Jefferson, Brutal Slaveholder and Racist Thinker

Law professor Paul Finkelman has an important commentary piece in the New York Times on two recent books on the “democratic” icon and famous founder Thomas Jefferson. Much of what most Americans believe about Jefferson’s everyday life in regard to racial matters is fictional or distorted in the direction of our “good” founders are “great liberty and equality advocates” in both thought and everyday practice.

A leading scholar of slavery and our “founding fathers,” Finkelman has much to say about this matter, especially in regard to the very interesting new book by Henry Wiencek that presents much data on Jefferson’s lifelong commitment to slavery and abuse of those he enslaved, including his sexual coercion of the young Black teenager Sally Hemings (see here). Finkelman argues that even Wiencek–who argues the younger and more egalitarian Jefferson becomes more of a hypocritical and money-oriented slaveholder as he ages — is too kind to Jefferson, especially in his early decades:

Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views . . . he tried to justify through pseudoscience. . . . when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves.

Finkelman adds that Jefferson was not the supposedly “good slaveholder,” the oxymoronic phrase often used for numerous slaveholding founders and other white slaveholders:

He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks.

And Wiencek’s book provides much more evidence of Jefferson’s brutality toward those he enslaved.

Thomas Jefferson is still a top democratic icon for a great many Americans, especially white Americans — with little critical recurring or public attention being given by whites to his everyday practice of extensive and often brutal slaveholding. Jefferson is also a founder (with intellectuals like Immanuel Kant) of early Western “race” framing that aggressively celebrates the white “race’s” superiority in most areas and puts down “inferior races” such as (enslaved) black Americans. You can see this most dramatically in his famous and only major book, Notes on the State of Virgina (see my analysis of Query 14 in that aggressively white-racist-framed chapter of his book here).

Well into the 21st century few Americans, especially few white Americans, know this bloody founding history, and remarkably few seem willing to learn it and examine its implications for our contemporary and still systemically racist society. Why is the historical truth on systemic racism so hard for most whites to accept and publicly discuss in this society?

Note: Paul Finkelman has a very good book, Slavery and the Founders, that I can recommend to you if you want to know more of the hard truths of our founding, slaveholding era and about the slavery-protecting US Constitution crafted by famous founders.

Frederick Douglass: What, to the American Slave, is Your 4th of July?



On this Independence day it is well to remember yet again a probing and candid speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.

ADDENDUM
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

[Reposted from blog archive]

Juneteenth and the Reality of Emancipation

Today is Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery. As you may already know, the news of the Emancipation proclamation came late two months late to Texas, and the holiday is meant to mark the arrival of that news.  What began as a regional celebration in Galveston, Texas has grown to a national commemoration. Yet, that celebration is a bittersweet one given what the reality of emancipation must have been, according to a new scholarly book.

 

(Emancipation Day, Austin, Texas, 1900,image source)

According to a new book, Sick From Freedom (Oxford University Press), by Jim Downs (Assistant Professor, Connecticut College), emancipation from slavery was also a health crisis for those formerly enslaved. A health crisis that has been largely ignored both by whites at the time and by mostly white historians since then.

At least one quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work — an epidemic that Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

Downs first became interested in the health of newly liberated slaves when he was a graduate student at Columbia University with a job as a research assistant in the papers of Harriet Jacobs, the author of the 1861 autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” and a vivid chronicler of the often abysmal conditions in the “contraband camps” where escaped slaves congregated during the war and in settlements of freed people more generally after it. The papers were full of heart-wrenching encounters with sick and dying freed people — references that he noticed were strikingly absent in recent scholarship.

To do this research, Downs sorted through the little-explored records of the medical division of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other archives, he found reams of statistical and anecdotal accounts of sick and dying freed people, whose suffering was seen by even some sympathetic Northern reformers as evidence that the former slaves, as a “race,” were doomed to extinction.

And, perhaps surprisingly, this is where I see a connection to much of the research that I’ve done on racism in the digital era. One of the ways that white supremacists and others not working against racial justice frame their discourse, is to talk about “slavery as a humane institution.”  Just to be clear, it would mean coming to the wrong conclusion to read Downs’ work as implying that slavery was better than emancipation.  It wasn’t.  Emancipation was a moral and a material victory in every sense.  And yet, at the same time, it was complicated by the crushing inequality and brutal continuation of racism after the official end of slavery that guaranteed that oppression manifested itself in the bodies and under the skin of the formerly enslaved.  Even when the physical shackles were removed, there were a hundred ways that people could still be oppressed by the lack of food, housing, and clean running water.

So, when I see those historical photos of early Juneteenth celebrations (like the one above), and I see how small and sober these events seem, I think what a bittersweet moment that must have been – celebrating emancipation and commemorating all those that didn’t make it, whether in the Middle Passage, or who were too sick to finally enjoy freedom.