Tag Archives: slavery

The Past Isn’t Past

For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading books on American history–some general, several by scholars focused on slavery and Jim Crow, and still others exploring specific movements–for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, for LGBTQ acceptance. I’ve come away from these descriptions of times past with the realization that in far too many ways, the past really isn’t past–that world-views that were powerful “back then” are far more present than I’ve wanted to believe.

 I recently finished a book titled Marse, written by a forensic psychiatrist named Kirkpatrick, who’d discovered–relatively late in his life–that the great-great grandfather for whom he was named had been a slave owner. In high-school, he and a Black acquaintance with the same last name had jokingly called each other “cuz.” When the two of them reconnected, some forty years later, the classmate shared his ancestry research, which had uncovered the fact that his forebears had been owned by the author’s ancestors–hence the same name. 

Kirkpatrick was stunned–that bit of history hadn’t been part of his family’s lore.

“Marse” is an old Southern word meaning “master,” and Kirkpatrick chose it as the (somewhat awkward) title of the book. Given his professional background, he fashioned his research as a “psychological autopsy” into the minds and behaviors of the Southern planters who believed themselves entitled to own other human beings.

Kirkpatrick’s description of the psychological effects of the “peculiar institution” on  slaveholders was instructive. He delved into the psychological mechanisms with which Marse justified the ownership of other human beings — the personality distortions, defense mechanisms, and psycho-pathologies that were an arguably inevitable effect of owning human “property.”

What was especially fascinating to me was the extent to which all White Southerners, those who owned slaves and those who didn’t, believed that Christianity and the Bible affirmatively promoted slavery as a positive good. Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter to  Evangelical pastors’ arguments justifying White dominance, arguments that Blacks were little more than animals who didn’t have souls, insisting that God had decreed the propriety/necessity of slavery, and arguments emphasizing that Jesus never spoke out against enslavement.

Southern Evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to justify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and non-slaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained by God.

The parallels between the psychology of antebellum slaveholding and today’s racists are unmistakable. The poor Whites who formed the bulk of the Confederate army identified with the slaveholders; they hated Black enslaved people and believed them to be inferior.

As Kirkpatrick writes, it would be naive to think that the psychological pathologies that enabled slavery didn’t continue to shape the nation’s economic, social and political systems over the century and a half that followed the Civil War.

In his final chapter, Kirkpatrick draws a compelling parallel between today’s Trump supporters and the Southern Whites who fought for slavery and for White Christian social dominance. He compares the South’s belief in the “Lost Cause”–the revisionist belief that the South’s losses in battle were the result of chicanery–that the South had been the victim of “Yankee vandals” engaged in an immoral and political power grab– to Trump’s Big Lie that his election had been stolen through fraud and theft.

Kirkpatrick draws a straight line between today’s MAGA movement and those “Lost Cause” Southerners. Like “Lost Cause” believers, Trump supporters feel  cheated and victimized–and are consumed with resentment and rage, “denying to themselves just how fearful they are about the changes taking place in the social and political fabric of our nation.”

The fact that the rioters who stormed the Capitol constituted a lynch mob dramatically links the events of January 6, 2021 back to the racist white supremacy of American slavery and post-Reconstruction violence of the Jim Crow era in American history.

The chapter traces what Kirkpatrick calls the “through line” of racist White supremacy and the psychology of those pre-Civil War slaveholders to  today’s MAGA GOP and Trump.

I don’t want to suggest that today’s White Christian ideology comes solely from “Lost Cause” Southerners;  this video (sent by a reader) of 22,000 American Nazis gathered in Madison Square Garden before WWII demonstrates that bigotry didn’t come only from the South.

Americans are just now coming to terms with the realities of the nation’s past. Much of that past is immensely positive–but making continued progress will requires us to grapple with the other parts, the parts that were wrongheaded, savage, and shameful.

We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.

Accurate history matters.




And Speaking Of White Nationalism…

Tom Cotton. (Even his name is white…)

As Alternet, among other media sources, has reported:

Tom Cotton, a Republican U.S. Senator representing Arkansas, has filed a bill that would withhold federal funding to any schools that teach “The 1619 Project,” a Pulitzer-prize winning piece of in-depth journalism from The New York Times published in 2019 that explores the United States’s legacy of slavery.

Cotton’s so-called Saving American History Act of 2020 would punish schools that teach lessons based on “The 1619 Project” by making them ineligible for federal professional development grants.

 “The New York Times’s 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded,” Cotton wrote. “Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”

Calling the meticulously researched reporting “Neo-Marxist garbage,” Cotton has staked out his political territory. He has advocated the use of U.S. military force against racial justice protesters, and accused journalists who had written an article detailing a classified government program monitoring terrorists’ finances of violating the Espionage Act. (He actually proposed prosecuting the reporters under that act, which at its extreme, allows people guilty of violations to be put to death.)

According to Business Insider, during an interview in which he was defending his attack on the Times project, Cotton referred to slavery as a “necessary evil.”

Cotton disputed the premise of the project, which he said argued “that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable.”

He went on to describe the US as “a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal.” He continued: “We have always struggled to live up to that promise, but no country has ever done more to achieve it.”

Later, he said: “We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

Several historians have questioned whether any Founding Father expressed the opinion that slavery was a “necessary evil.” (What some did express was the belief that allowing the South to continue slaveholding was a “necessary evil” if the Constitution was to be ratified.)

Nikole Hannah-Jones was the journalist who came up with the idea for the project, and her   introductory essay won a Pulitzer Prize.  She responded to Cotton’s characterizations in a tweet.

“If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a ‘necessary evil’ as @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end,” she wrote.

According to Wikipedia, Cotton has written essays calling Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “race-hustling charlatans” and has said that race relations “would almost certainly improve if we stopped emphasizing race in our public life.” He has rejected assertions that America’s justice system “over incarcerates, saying “If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem” Cotton said that reduced sentencing for felons would “destabilize the United States.

Not all of Cotton’s policy preferences are rooted in racism, of course. He’s wrong on multiple other fronts as well.

He opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented aliens (okay, that one probably is racist), and voted for the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a bill to ban abortions occurring 20 or more weeks after fertilization.

Cotton has an A rating from the NRA and In response to the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, stated that he did not believe any new gun control legislation would have prevented it.

He was one of thirty-one Republican senators to cosponsor the Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, a bill introduced by John Cornyn and Ted Cruz that would grant individuals with concealed carry privileges in their home state the right to exercise this right in any other state with concealed carry laws while concurrently abiding by that state’s laws.

You will also not be surprised to find that Cotton opposes the Affordable Care Act; he has characterized it as “offensive to a free society and a free people.” Cotton was among the 38 Republican signatories to an amicus curiae supporting a legal challenge to the ACA. (Okay, maybe this one is rooted in racism too; he probably doesn’t want to give “those people” free access to medical care…)

I should give Andy Borowitz the last word:“Rand Paul thanks Tom Cotton for replacing him as the most hated man in the Senate…Cotton beat out a daunting field of competitors for Senator Paul’s crown, including Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, and Ted Cruz.”

In short, Cotton is a perfect representative of today’s Republican Party.


There it is In Black and White

Since I’ve been on the subject of bigotry of various kinds…..

Recent news reports have highlighted academic research that confirms the degree to which animus toward President Obama is based on simple racism. I know that many readers will file this research under “duh,” but the fact that it merely confirms something we felt we knew, rather than telling us something we didn’t know, doesn’t make it any less valid or valuable.

The first study looked specifically at Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party.

Researchers at Stanford University found that when they showed white subjects photos of President Barack Obama with darkened skin, those people became more likely to support right-wing political organizations like the Tea Party.

According to the Washington Post, sociologist Robb Willer and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments from 2011 to 2015 in which they demonstrated that some white voters may be driven by unconscious racial biases against people with darker skin.

The study came about when Willard found himself pondering why racist hysteria has ratcheted up in this country since the election of President Obama in 2008. The ranks of white supremacist groups swelled after Obama entered the White House and watchdog groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center report that hate groups have become more active in recent years.

Willard’s study group published their work a few weeks ago on the Social Science Research Network. This research joins previous studies confirming  that racism has been an essential factor in Republican electoral victories.

In another study reported by the Washington Post, researchers from Harvard and Stanford found that racist attitudes remain stronger in areas of the South where slavery was most prominent. Not only was racism harder to eradicate in the counties where slavery had been most integral to the economy, but white Southerners who live today where cotton was king are substantially less likely to identify as Democrats.

Among otherwise similar counties, a difference of 20 percentage points in the enslaved population in 1860 was correlated with a difference of 2.3 percentage points in the share of white Democrats…

Polls consistently show that Republicans are more likely to hold racial prejudices, and not just in the South. Nationally, almost one in five Republicans opposes interracial dating, compared to just one in 20 Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center. While 79 percent of Republicans agree with negative statements about blacks such as the one about slavery and discrimination, just 32 percent of Democrats do, the Associated Press has found.

Other researchers have reached similar conclusions about the present-day composition of the party of Lincoln.

Sears of the University of California has found that even among white voters with equally conservative views on issues unrelated to race, those with more negative views about African Americans are more likely to vote Republican. He and Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, showed that there were many racially conservative white voters who supported John Kerry and President Clinton when they were candidates, but who voted against President Obama.

It is worth emphasizing that–just as all chairs are furniture, but not all furniture items are chairs–the fact that people with racist attitudes are more likely to be Republican is not the same thing as saying all or most Republicans are racists.

But these research findings–which tend to corroborate anecdotal observations–do help explain why Donald Trump’s attacks on “political correctness” and “those people” found enough fertile ground among the GOP base to make him the Republican nominee.

And the research also reminds us why America’s effort to eradicate the legacy of its slave-owning past is such a hard slog.

See a Site, Drag Grandpa

There’s an old joke about the golfers who were on the 12th hole when one of their foursome suddenly died. One of the survivors was recounting the experience later to a friend who said sympathetically, “that must have been terrible.” “It was,” replied the golfer. “For the next six holes, it was awful–play a hole, drag Charlie, play a hole, drag Charlie…”

My husband and I are in Williamsburg, Virginia, with our two youngest grandchildren. We’re seeing the historical sites here, then going to Washington, D.C., where we’ll tour the White House and Capitol (thanks to Congressman Carson’s office!), and see still more history. Those of you who read this blog regularly will understand when I say that one of my goals is to ensure that my own grandchildren, at least, know there are three branches of government.

We aren’t as young as we used to be, however, and Grandpa has been limping. Hence the reference to Charlie and his foursome. We see a site, drag Grandpa…

Today, we took the grandkids to a short film about the days/events leading up to the American Revolution. I don’t know how much of the story line they really understood, but my ten-year-old grandson picked up on the slaves who were among the show’s background elements, and asked a question: How could people ever believe it was okay to own other people?

A pretty good question.

As I told him, sometimes we fail to see that things we take for granted are wrong. Sometimes, we’ve done something wrong for so long, we no longer question it. That’s why it is so important to think about the everyday things we do, to consider whether they are right or wrong.

When I get discouraged, I look at my grandchildren. Their friends are multi-colored and multi-cultural. Their friends’ parents are gay and straight, married and single. The children see people as nice or not nice–not as representatives of this or that (artificial) category of human.

And they can’t imagine thinking it was ever okay to own other people.

I think it’s been worth dragging Grandpa.