Reaction to Reconstruction Part III

BrianI’m currently on Chapter IV: “The General Strike”, of Du Bois’ chronicle of how the majority of modern White America sees its role with respect to racism, and how they view Black people themselves.

In it, the author describes how during times of conflict — internal and external, political and militaristic — “both sections [of the country, North and South] ignored the Negro.” It’s often thought or assumed that liberals, urban-area whites, and generally white folks in the North (e.g., Democrats) are measurably more empathetic to Blacks. There’s a notion that they are the Benevolent Providers of a safety net, an alcove of motherly sanction.

However, “The North shrank at the very thought of encouraging servile insurrection against the whites.” Those who aren’t actively fighting racism, who don’t find some responsibility for it, merely play the role of sloth in sheep’s clothing. Racism has defined this country since its inception, and at its core. And white people generally reap the benefits of this definition.

Yet, “Nothing that concerned the amelioration of the Negro touched the heart of the mass of Americans nor could could the common run of men realize the political and economic cost of Negro slavery.”

Oh wait, that’s right. This book is about what was happening in the U.S. over 150 years ago.

I keep forgetting this.


Lauren: Through the magic of air travel (thanks, uninterrupted reading time!), I’m through to the start of Chapter 9. (To sum up Chapter 8, Andrew Johnson was a complete asshole). One of the things that resonated with me in this book has been the testimony from Carl Schurz, who reported on conditions in the South after the Civil War. He was sent on the mission at the behest of President Johnson, who would later ignore everything he found out. (Suck it, facts).

Schurz differentiated four classes in the South (my paraphrasing):

  1. Those who resisted that are coming around to the new way of things
  2. Those who want the states reunited without delay
  3. The “incorrigibles” (the deplorables of the 1800s!) who still want the South to have its independence
  4. The apathetic/uninformed yet easily influenced crowd.

He actually describes that last one as “The multitude of people who have no definite ideas about the circumstances under which they live and about the course they have to follow; whose intellects are weak, but whose prejudices and impulses are strong, and who are apt to be carried along by those who know how to appeal to the latter.” It’s a good reminder that appeals to emotions (and some select facts that fit easily within those world-views) can easily sway the course of history. And particularly pertinent, with midterms coming up. Anyway.

Schurz goes on to drop this gem:

“Another most singular notion still holds a potent sway over the minds of the masses—it is, that the elevation of the blacks will be the degradation of the whites.”

This. This this this. It’s been with us for hundreds of years and I wonder if it will ever go away. Is it just a shitty fundamental human thing that people’s brains automatically assume that lifting someone else up somehow pushes someone else down? Surely there’s a way to inoculate people against this? Maybe this hits so hard because I’ve spent a good chunk of the last two weeks moderating a cesspool of YouTube comments that make this very assumption. Angry white men taking the time to say that trying to lift up and highlight white women and underrepresented minorities is racist and sexist against white men. First off, racism and sexism are based on people having power, which women and underrepresented minorities do not have. But second of all, not everything is a zero sum game, friends! Helping others to succeed, to have access to the same basic things you already have access to, does not necessarily bring you down. (And even if it did, like, it might be worth it? Maybe take one for the team? You’ll be fine.)

The idea re-emerges in the next chapter, when Du Bois covers the conventions rising up all over the country demanding that slave codes be abolished and Black citizens allowed to vote. In what Du Bois flags as the most significant meeting in the North, a National Convention (with Frederick Douglass among the attendees) made a resolution that included this passage:

“Fellow-citizens, let us entreat you, have faith in your own principles. If freedom is good for any, it is good for all. If you need the elective franchise, we need it even more. You are strong, we are weak; you are many, we are few; you are protected, we are exposed. Clothe us with this safeguard of our liberty, and give us an interest in the country to which, in common with you, we have given our lives and poured out our best blood. You cannot need special protection. Our degradation is not essential to your elevation, nor our peril essential to your safety. You are not likely to be outstripped in the fact of improvements by persons of African descent; and hence you have no need of superior advantage, nor to burden them with disabilities of any kind.”

This has so many modern parallels, it hurts. How can we teach people? It is failing to elevate others that degrades us all.


Renee: I’m also on Chapter 9,  “The Price of Disaster”, which opens with a damning quote:

The price of the disaster of slavery and civil war was the necessity of assimilating into American democracy a mass of ignorant laborers in whose hands alone for the moment lay the power of preserving the ideals of popular government […] It was this price which in the end America refused to pay and today suffers for that refusal.

As Lauren commented above, Andrew Johnson = not a good guy.

I’m intrigued how in this chapter and the one before it, Du Bois highlights how Johnson changed face: from being a leader of land reform to someone who someone who ‘placed himself at the head of the Southerners’, and as such basically ended discussions on voting rights for the newly-freed slaves.

The resounding idea of promises not kept, of new alliances formed which would all but erase the gains that had been won (Du Bois discusses how the time after the war became one of a struggle where the South wanted to gain more power in Congress, while the North tried to suppress it through the Fourteenth amendment.

Again I’ve previously thought of this kind of naively as a real battle of “good men” who wanted to end slavery and those who were invested in it and profited from it. But if there is anything i’ve learned from this book is that it’s more complicated and much uglier than that. Du Bois discusses why the North had developed an interest in the newly-freed Black people because of a ‘conviction that an arrogant South was returning to Congress with increased political power.’

After vainly trying to compromise with the South during and since the war, it appeared that the only way forward to win this power struggle was to adopt a ‘revolutionary and hitherto undreamed of’ ideal – voting rights for Black people.

What follows is an interesting back and forth between labor movements, discussions of land distribution and the resultant power struggle:

“If the basic problem of Reconstruction in the South was economic, then the kernel of the economic situation was the land.  […] The main question […] was the problem of [Black people] owning land. It was ridiculed as unreasonable and unjust to the impoverished landholders of the South and as part of a desire for revenge with the North had. But in essence it was nothing of the sort.”

This framing of the struggle for freedom for African Americans always posed as either a ‘revenge’ or ‘unreasonable’ given its impact on (white) people really takes my breath away through the book.

That it seemed like too much of a demand to ask for more than just freedom from slavery. That schools, land ownership didn’t happen because it was too costly to (white) Americans. That the economic emancipation of labor didn’t materialise even after emancipation of slavery was ‘won’ because the majority of Americans “deserted him shamelessly as soon as their selfish interests were safe’.

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