HISTORY IS A CURRENT EVENT
“History is a current event, so the past is the present and the present is the past.” The conscious poet Heru drops this wisdom in his 2008 lyrical poem “Barack Obama is Septimius Severus.” We need to be aware of the history being repeated and being made in the current events of 2010.
Unlike Heru, I’m not referring to the historical implications of the Obama presidency. The particular historical moment is profoundly disturbing and has potentially disastrous social ramifications. No, I’m not talking about the man-made ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. That catastrophe has no similar historical precedent in terms of the extent of the damage, which at this point is incalculable. Neither am I referring to the lamentable milestones of the war on the Afghan people. That protracted conflict is now the longest war ever prosecuted by the USA – with still no end in sight. The wars are also historical in that they’ve drained more than an unfathomable trillion dollars from the national treasury. Another historical event is the massive transfer of wealth to the already-wealthy that is ongoing, courtesy of the Great Recession and the Great Bailouts to the financiers who masterminded the meltdown. But this also is unparalleled in history in terms of the size and scope of the theft of public wealth.
The present historical moment I want to illuminate has to do with the uniquely American manifestations of racism and white supremacy. Racism has been constitutive of American society since its inception. Long before there was a United States of America there was racism and white supremacy here on this continent, brought to you by the Europeans who unsettled the land. Racism defined the relations between the white Europeans and non-white peoples since Columbus encountered, then systematically exterminated, the gentle natives of the Caribbean.
The USA was born nearly 300 years later in the midst of the most vicious system of chattel slavery in human history. To say racism was constitutive of this nation’s creation is no exaggeration. There were numerous laws that regulated the institutionalized system of the enslavement of Africans among the various colonies/states, and the Constitution itself condones slavery and enshrines white supremacy in establishing the black slave as three-fifths of a person (Article I; Section 2). That “peculiar institution” only expanded in the 8-plus decades between the signing of the Constitution and the fighting of the Civil War. The war itself was the tragic yet necessary collision of an irresistible force (the struggle for human liberation) and an immovable object (the system of domination).
Even though the institution of slavery gave way, the Domination System remained unmoved; the forces of racism remained alive and well in the economic, political, and social organs of the body politic. These nefarious forces have been recreated in various new forms each time an older one is overcome. When slavery was abolished, sharecropping was born. When slave masters disappeared, the Ku Klux Klan and other terror groups were formed. When plantations were abandoned, ghettos materialized. When slave laws were dismissed, Jim Crow and Black Codes appeared. And so forth.
It is the resurgence of these regressive and racist ideologies that we are unfortunate enough to be witnessing today. Specifically, we can identify the present political, economic, and social manifestations of this resurgence, and see the striking parallels in two similar periods in American history, namely the post-Civil War era and the Civil Rights.
The political and social manifestations may be the easiest to identify. Regressives (so-called conservatives) have lurched to the right ideologically since the election of Barack Obama in November of 2008. Perhaps the most visible forms of this retrenched regressive ideology are the organization of the tea partiers and, perhaps to a somewhat lesser degree, the upsurge in libertarian popularity. While these groups claim to be opposing “big government” and some form of “socialist takeover” that comes from deep within their fallow, delusional minds, its hardly a coincidence that all this indignation erupted only after a black man was duly elected as President of the United States. These uberconservatives further claim they’re taking a righteous stand against the unrelenting attacks on “American” values and threats to national sovereignty. Translated, this means they resent like hell having a black guy in the White House. And the influx of brown-skinned Latinos since the late 90s, courtesy of the destructive policies of NAFTA, somehow presents a threat to the stability of the nation.
It was after the Civil War that regressive racists organized politically to bring an end to Reconstruction and the birth of the Dixiecrats. This effectively ushered in nearly a century of formal and informal racist policies and practices that relegated blacks to the status of 2nd class citizens. Terror groups like the KKK, the Red Shirts, and the White Knights shaped social race relations by using lynchings, murder, rape, and beatings to intimidate blacks into a state of fear and submission. Jim Crow and Black Codes used laws and customs to segregate, subordinate, and humiliate blacks. Sharecropping and the forced labor of blacks found guilty of trivial offenses confined blacks to grinding poverty and social isolation. White citizens counsels maintained rigidly segregated communities in the South, while redlining kept Northern blacks ghettoized and marginalized. All these forces collaborated to prevent blacks from voting, thus keeping them disenfranchised and depoliticized.
These oppressive forces flourished in a “separate but equal” America for decades, but resistance was consistent and cracks began to appear in the edifice of white supremacy. Blacks served with valor in both World Wars, and ultimately the military was desegregated. Professional sports became widely popular with the advent of television, and the slow integration of pro football, baseball, and basketball represented great social strides for America. Brown v Board of Education spelled the beginning of the end to separate public schools for black and white children. The Civil Rights Movement ushered in numerous other progressive measures and landmark legislation.
But while progress was being made and America was beginning to live up to its creeds of equality and freedom, regressives retrenched and organized to fight back against these attacks on “traditional American values.” The modern conservative movement can be traced to the Goldwater Republicans of the early 1960s, an obvious resentment of blacks becoming more included in the social contract. The policies and philosophies that came out of this regressive backlash have been devastating. The police state measures that grew out of the Republican “law and order” initiative have devastated the black community. Black liberation organizations were systematically dismantled, their leadership either murdered, imprisoned, or harassed into submission. The prison-industrial complex exploded, growing exponentially into a system of control, intimidation, and disenfranchisement. The Ohio State University scholar Michelle Alexander sees this malicious and wasteful warehousing of over one million black men as “the new Jim Crow,” and it has had calamitous effects on the black community.
So now in an attempt to “take back their country,” regressives are once again organizing politically around their xenophobia in an attempt to elect guys like Rand Paul, who believes businesses have the prerogative to refuse services to black folks. And to reclaim their social superiority, the not-so-great states of Texas and Arizona are leading the way to make sure that “white is right.” It is now a criminal offense to be an undocumented foreigner in Arizona. And Texas is busy literally re-writing the history books to make sure the American Narrative stays as lily white as possible. We as progressives need to recognize this moment in the continuum of regressive, racist recoil to progress and reason. Hopefully, by seeing the bigger picture and understanding the broader context of struggle for human rights we’re better able to fight the historic forces of domination and oppression.