The neo-feudalist economy caused by unchecked, unregulated capitalism that turned at best a winking nod to social welfare, more often a blind eye, and at worst a joyous ax, has facilitated a nationalist, authoritarian rise in pitch, and an abrupt shift right in federal ideology. Donald Trump is both the drooping wilted leaf of this societal rot, and the root. But why?
Human life in the US has no inherent worth. We are not valued beyond the revenue we can generate for the white men who do not need it. Think of how we talk about our own people in a professional setting: Human resources. Human capital. Taxpayer base. These are ways of talking about people that reduce them to streams of income. Think of all the things life offers beyond revenue: love. progress. art. invention. community. health. knowledge. We do not value these things at the institutional level, in fact, we actively curtail them all. But that’s only one piece of the inextricable puzzle.
Additionally, this country was founded with two original sins baked in: Genocidal concentration of its indigenous people, and mass enslavement of the African race. These sins were never reckoned, and they continue to manifest themselves in a litany of ugly and tragic ways. You’ve no doubt read about them by now, but in case you’d like a tweet-length summary, we’ll call it: systemic dehumanization and oppression of all people who are not white.
So that’s how we got here: People can’t afford to live. We’re jailing babies in cages. Kids are being shot up in schools. We’re deporting people seeking asylum. Flint doesn’t have clean water. Puerto Rico is a mess. We’re attacking women online and assaulting them in the streets. All given the tacit, or even enthusiastic, approval by a fascist authoritarian apex predator who has free reign to indulge his darkest impulses. Yet make no mistake: Authoritarianism is not the cause … it is a symptom of a deeper, underlying sickness. Civilization is a thin veneer. As civilization crumbles (as it is assuredly doing now), it emboldens and empowers monsters like these.
When a nation fails, the out-groups are often the first to hear its roar, and the first to feel its rage. So you can see it now. The only way out is through.
What bearing does this have on institutional racism and its causes? The neo-colonial economic model is about coercing labor apart from whatever racial and / or national animosity might exist. American industries could have offered market wages to the Mexican peasants that NAFTA targeted until they agreed to work for them- this is the way that labor ‘markets’ work. But instead they chose to ‘free’ several million people from subsistence economies to compete with previously displaced Mexican labor and American industrial workers with the result that wages were lowered all around.
As uncompensated labor, slavery reduces employment and wages for the non-chattel working class. Without slavery, plantations and factories hire labor and pay it the prevailing wage. But doing so reduces profits. Then consider: this dynamic places the working class in direct competition with more deeply exploited classes, be they slaves, descendants of slaves or displaced peasants. This economic relationship of competition is (1) imposed from above and (2) socially divisive by being economically divisive.
From slavery through convict leasing, Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow, the economic lots of American blacks were never left to market forces. Each of these institutions were used to expropriate the product of black labor outside of market forces. And this racialized economic ‘management’ impacted labor markets more broadly through controlling the supply of labor. What this means is that ‘management’ of black labor was to manage the supply, and with it the price, of the entire working class, not just blacks.
In human terms, unless the source of this systematic exploitation is made visible, the class dynamic that it establishes is to make the most deeply exploited the most blameworthy. Slaves, descendants of slaves and displaced immigrants were never the creators of the circumstances of their exploitation. The fallacy of ‘takers’ that unites white racist chatter confuses state strategies to maintain relative class positions for employers with the power to expropriate social resources. The class that largely controls economic outcomes remains well-hidden in this ruse.
Starting in the 1830s and 1840s, some American abolitionists advocated for a tactic called moral suasion, arguing that surely white Americans who truly knew about the full horrors of slavery would change their minds and fight for its abolition. They tried to promote fellow feeling, telling stories of separation and sexual abuse to play upon Victorian idealization of family togetherness and womanly virtue. This worked for some listeners, but not for others, whose racism and complicity in the system deadened any natural empathy they might have had. Ending slavery took a war.
But no extremely moving information about John Kelly’s or Mike Pence’s families from decades ago will make immigration hawks rethink the way they perceive a story like the one about ICE taking an 18-month-old child from his Honduran mother-telling her to strap him into a car seat, and then driving away without allowing her to say goodbye. From an immigration hawk’s point of view, that’s not anyone like their mother, not anyone like their family.
The chasm between the life and experiences of a white American, even one who’s descended from desperate immigrants of decades past, and the life of this Honduran mother is the entire point of racist anti-immigration thought. Diminishment of the human qualities of entering immigrants (“unskilled” and “unmodern” immigrants coming from “shithole” countries) reinforces the distance between the two. People who support the Trump administration’s immigration policies want fewer Honduran mothers and their 18-month-olds to enter the country. If you start from this position, nothing you hear about illiterate Germans coming to the United States in the 19 century will change your mind.
I’ve been digging around in an idea that pervades Evangelicalism. The Evangelical belief that we merely live in our bodies. American Christianity (which consists in large part of evangelicalism) has minimized the theology and, if you will, sacredness of the body, saying that the physical body was irrelevant except to house the soul.
When framed in the evangelical American context, this twisted argument has a lot of value. It was probably the easiest theological justification for America’s beloved human rights abuses: enslavement and genocide.
By necessity of white America’s devotion to these practices, the black body didn’t matter to God.
The black experience didn’t matter to God.
Black suffering didn’t matter to God.
Evangelical theology has a functional disregard for both the body and mind, minimizing very real mental health disorders and often attributing them to personal sin or spiritual attack. It requires you to cut off parts of yourself in order to be a true believer.
In order to be a Christian, you have to engage in a form of self-colonization. You have to amputate your blackness, Latinness, Nativeness. You have to amputate your sexuality, your queerness, your masculinity if you’re female, your femininity if you’re male, your passions, your dreams, your intelligence, your critical thinking. No form of otherness is accepted within their narrow interpretation of Christianity.
Evangelicals will tell you that the resulting emotional and mental anguish and suffering are just holiness working in your life. Somehow they never have to answer for the fact that permanent pain is not positive growth.
When you are in pain, you are less able to think clearly and therefore easier to manipulate and control.
Do not mangle yourself for some White Jesus who expects your marginalization to continue as proof of your piety, while those with power, privilege, and supremacy do nothing to ease your burden. Jesus did not come to oppress the marginalized and put heavy loads on their backs. In fact, he condemned powerful people who were doing exactly that.
It is often said that slavery was our country’s original sin, but it is much more than that. Slavery is our country’s origin. It was responsible for the growth of the American colonies, transforming them from far-flung, forgotten outposts of the British Empire to glimmering jewels in the crown of England. And slavery was a driving power behind the new nation’s territorial expansion and industrial maturation, making the United States a powerful force in the Americas and beyond.
Slavery was also our country’s Achilles heel, responsible for its near undoing. When the southern states seceded, they did so expressly to preserve slavery. So wholly dependent were white Southerners on the institution that they took up arms against their own to keep African Americans in bondage. They simply could not allow a world in which they did not have absolute authority to control black labor—and to regulate black behavior.
The central role that slavery played in the development of the United States is beyond dispute. And yet, we the people do not like to talk about slavery, or even think about it, much less teach it or learn it. The implications of doing so unnerve us. If the cornerstone of the Confederacy was slavery, then what does that say about those who revere the people who took up arms to keep African Americans in chains? If James Madison, the principal architect of the Constitution, could hold people in bondage his entire life, refusing to free a single soul even upon his death, then what does that say about our nation’s founders? About our nation itself?
Slavery is hard history. It is hard to comprehend the inhumanity that defined it. It is hard to discuss the violence that sustained it. It is hard to teach the ideology of white supremacy that justified it. And it is hard to learn about those who abided it.
We the people have a deep-seated aversion to hard history because we are uncomfortable with the implications it raises about the past as well as the present.
We the people would much rather have the Disney version of history, in which villains are easily spotted, suffering never lasts long, heroes invariably prevail and life always gets better. We prefer to pick and choose what aspects of the past to hold on to, gladly jettisoning that which makes us uneasy. We enjoy thinking about Thomas Jefferson proclaiming, “All men are created equal.” But we are deeply troubled by the prospect of the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, declaring, “Me too.”
Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson had the truth of it when he said, “Our problem as Americans is we actually hate history. What we love is nostalgia.”
American slavery is the key to understanding the complexity of our past. How can we fully comprehend the original intent of the Bill of Rights without acknowledging that its author, James Madison, enslaved other people? How can we understand that foundational document without understanding that its author was well versed not only in the writings of Greek philosophers and Enlightenment thinkers, but also in Virginia’s slave code? How can we ignore the influence of that code, that “bill of rights denied,” which withheld from African Americans the very same civil liberties Madison sought to safeguard for white people?
The intractable nature of racial inequality is a part of the tragedy that is American slavery. But the saga of slavery is not exclusively a story of despair; hard history is not hopeless history. Finding the promise and possibility within this history requires us to consider the lives of the enslaved on their own terms.
Trapped in an unimaginable hell, enslaved people forged unbreakable bonds with one another. Indeed, no one knew better the meaning and importance of family and community than the enslaved. They fought back too, in the field and in the house, pushing back against enslavers in ways that ranged from feigned ignorance to flight and armed rebellion. There is no greater hope to be found in American history than in African Americans’ resistance to slavery.
The Founding Fathers were visionaries, but their vision was limited. Slavery blinded them, preventing them from seeing black people as equals. We the people have the opportunity to broaden the founders’ vision, to make racial equality real. But we can no longer avoid the most troubling aspects of our past. We have to have the courage to teach hard history, beginning with slavery. And here’s how.