The Civil War was fought because the wealthy in the southern part of the United States wanted the right to have their African slaves working anywhere they damned well wanted them to. There was a raging debate, as native Americans were slaughtered, or otherwise removed from lands that were to be settled by “white” Americans, about the expansion of slavery into these new territories. America by then had a strictly race-based slavery, the only slaves working were from Africa.
Americans who hated slavery, as most of us today do, were determined to stop its expansion. Americans who profited handsomely from slave labor stood on their Constitutional right to own and sell as many damned slaves as they could afford to and do pretty much anything they damned well pleased with them. The Bible was called into play by supporters of slavery to justify God’s supposed approval of this arrangement. Abolitionists also cited the Bible as condemning the Peculiar Institution, which just goes to show you.
So why did hundreds of thousands of brave, warlike working class Rebels, men who could not afford to own slaves, charge into Union fire defending an institution that did not benefit them in any way? How is it that the Civil War itself has come to stand for “states’ rights”, Americans’ right to disagree and the overreach of vindictive northerners (the damned meddlesome federal government) in punishing the south after its surrender? Why is there any debate over the flag of the former Confederacy, the states who took up arms against the country they seceded from , flying over southern government buildings? (Shoot, it’s not like the stars and bars is a damned swastika, just the colors of an army that rose up to defend a damned way of life, a genteel and good one too…)
We have to recognize that a lot of this, like racism itself, defies strict rational analysis. These are emotional issues that do not call the higher functions of the analytical mind into play. Why did millions of angry, hurting Americans recently vote for a callous billionaire who spoke as though he was their friend and champion, as if his only interests were not more money and more power? Same deal. Our question today is not why people vote and act against their own best interests, it’s why racism?
Howard Zinn, in his groundbreaking A People’s History of the United States, described the situation in early colonial America. Many poor people arrived as indentured servants. In return for their passage, poor “whites” contracted to work as unpaid servants for a certain number of years, after which indenture they would be freed. They worked side by side with African slaves and sometimes enslaved Native Americans. But there was a problem.
They made common cause with their fellow slaves, resisted brutal treatment together, ran off together, married. Those who benefitted from slave labor were in genuine danger from this united front. There could have been no United States of America as we know it if these unpaid laborers were not divided and set against each other. It was not profitable for the wealthy to have to pay workers for labor-intensive monoculture cultivation. The solidarity of the enslaved presented a real dilemma for the new barons of the vast, fertile American wilderness.
The colony of Virginia, very early, in the 1680s, I believe, addressed this vexing problem for the wealthy. A law was written guaranteeing certain rights to White Indentured Servants. They could not be stripped naked for whipping, for example, though black slaves certainly could. The white slaves were given certain other rights including the right to receive way more than the mythical 40 acres and a mule when they were liberated from their indenture. In addition to land (100 acres, I think) and animals, they got a good supply of food, some money and a gun with plenty of powder and bullets. Thus, by this ingenious device, Virginia made white slaves far superior to Negroes who were most often destined to remain slaves from birth to death.
This is one calculated, cultivated reason for American racism. It is based on the tribal human need to feel superior to the “other”, a phenomenon seen throughout history in most places. It is often exploited by the privileged few who control populations by keeping those with common interests as divided as possible. This need to feel superior becomes an unbearable ache during times of crisis, famine, fear, uncertainty and is often expressed violently. It can be stoked pretty easily.
After the Civil War there was almost a century of terrorist lynching, tolerated by the states, while Southern legislators blocked federal laws to stop it. The Turks massacred more than a million Armenians, when the supposed circumstances arose, around the time of World War One. The Japanese tortured, raped and beheaded “racially inferior” Chinese during their infamous Rape of Nanking in the years prior to full-blown World War Two. The Germans systematically murdered millions of “others” including several million Jews.
In each case these genocides were fueled by racist beliefs. The people being killed were not fellow human beings, they were inferior races that needed to be destroyed, usually because of the grave danger they supposedly represented.
In order to commit unspeakable acts against other humans, it is generally necessary to hate those humans. How do good, decent, law-abiding, God-fearing Americans torture people? By believing they are torturing inhuman terrorists who will stop at nothing to inflict unthinkable atrocities on innocent Americans. That an individual recipient of torture may turn out to be an innocent, sixty year-old pediatrician does not mean the rest of them aren’t the worst of the worst.
You can flip through pages of recent propaganda posters to get a nice glimpse of racism made graphic. Ever see the American depictions of “Japs” during World War Two? Vicious, squinting, buck-toothed rats. Look at Nazi cartoons of Jews, same kind of deal. Cartoons of American Blacks, similarly vicious. It is necessary to ridicule and hate before you can commit atrocities against a group of people.
Not everyone is cut out to massacre with machetes, as one African tribal group, the Hutus, did to 800,000 Tutsis in a frenzy of killing in Rwanda in 1994. The Nazis had a challenge figuring out how to kill so many Jews. The men in the killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, who shot Jews into mass graves, became drunks, went mad. A few idealistic sadists excelled, but the sheer number of Jews to be killed was overwhelming. Eventually a program was developed that mechanized the killing process, lessening the toll on those tasked with the mass murder of the villainized, subhuman groups.
If those who exploit others for their own profit do not divide their potential opposition and make them hate each other, their lucrative enterprise is often in danger. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a greatly admired Man of the Year, and won the Nobel Peace Prize, when he was peacefully fighting to integrate lunch counters, buses, urging his followers to endure great hardship and exert moral force to end segregation. Once he began speaking of the infamous triad of racism, militarism and poverty, and uniting the poor of all races, he became an enemy of America who had to be killed. Listen to his “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” speech, delivered at Riverside Church in New York, a year to the day before his murder:
The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. In international conflicts, the truth is hard to come by because most nations are deceived about themselves. Rationalizations and the incessant search for scapegoats are the psychological cataracts that blind us to our sins. But the day has passed for superficial patriotism. He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery. Freedom is still the bonus we receive for knowing the truth. “Ye shall know the truth,” says Jesus, “and the truth shall set you free.” Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal…
… It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.
Men who speak such truths are often killed– if heeded they could cost those who profit from war billions of dollars. Murdering such troublemakers has always been part of the history of guns in America. Gun violence was always integral to the rule of racists in America. “The Equalizer” was a Colt 45 revolver that made the man holding it the equal, physically, if not morally, of four or five stronger men who did not have guns. An Equalizer tucked in the belt of a white overseer meant that, no matter how brutal he may have been to the slaves he worked, he was equal to a bunch of the strongest of them who hated him. Unlike its predecessors, guns that had to be reloaded after one shot, leaving the shooter vulnerable, the Equalizer had a revolving chamber and was able to fire and kill six times. Suck on that, muscle man.
Why racism? It benefits those who, like our current president, stoke it and use it to send messages that divide and conquer. Mexicans are no more likely to rape than anyone else. The very idea is ridiculous. And yet…
We call racism by many names, deny it most of the time. We obscure our infamously racist history here– we had race-based chattel slavery here for more than two hundred years, annihilated most of the native people who lived on what is now the USA (savages, we remember them as), excluded the Chinese, once they had died building transcontinental railroads, tolerated more than a century of terrorism against former slaves, discriminated against Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans and other “ethnic” types, and so forth.
“Race” is largely an arbitrary construct, and a very mutable one. At one time here in the United States (and still, among some) Italians, Irish and Jews were considered “niggers”. As a Jewish man, I take my solidarity with my fellow niggers quite seriously, as my father before me did.
In our greatest moments as a nation, these arbitrary differences have been put aside and masses of our people have moved forward together to face some grave challenge or to enjoy the fruits of liberty. In our worst moments, these cultural differences are exploited by ruthless demagogues, pointing to the evil “other” and inspiring violence as they do their dirty deeds.
Fuck racism, you know what I’m saying? But in order to fuck it, you first have to talk about it.