Black Confederates, slavery, and the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War

Just a day late to join the many people commemorating the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, when South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. I noticed that many of the news stories focused on whether we are “still fighting the Civil War” today (since there is still racism), and one story harped irritatingly on the misguided idea that many enslaved black Americans fought for the Confederacy.

The show (NPR’s The Takeaway) had a few black Americans in to talk about ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. I was about to post here in despair, in an attempt to set the record straight, but thankfully, the show brought in the wonderful Kevin Levin, author of the Civil War Memory blog, to set it straight himself. You can hear the interview here.

Here’s what Kevin had to say later on his blog:

“Unfortunately, the time [on the show] went by way too fast.  I would have been happy to listen to any number of people on this issue, but of course, I am pleased that they asked me to join them this morning. For additional reading, I highly recommend Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War and Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.  You may also want to take a look at my Black Confederate Resources page, which provides an overview of what I’ve written on the subject on this blog.  You will also find a great deal of commentary on this site about Earl Ijames, who was mentioned in the course of the interview.  Click here for the post on Ijames and Henry L. Gates.”

I pass these resources along to readers of the HP, and pass along my thanks once again to Kevin for his tirelessly objective and valuable work.

On the other points, I think it’s hard to say we’re still fighting the Civil War; I think the Civil War was one watershed event in the history of acknowledging racism as an evil. We fought the Civil War as one battle in the war on racism. We’re still fighting that war, but not the Civil War.

Finally, there were many predictable claims that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but states’ rights. This began life immediately after the war, when Confederate leaders and supporters immediately began a spin campaign to put their actions in the best possible light. They claimed they had never fought for slavery, that the Constitution and states’ rights were the be-all and end-all of the Cause. This was debunked thoroughly over the years, notably by Charles Dew in his book Apostles of Disunion (see “Slavery leads to secession, secession leads to war” for more).

Once it was clear that southern leaders were 100% in their desire to fight the war to protect slavery, the argument shifted: now revisionists said that while powerful southerners fought for slavery, the average Confederate in the trenches was a poor man who didn’t own any enslaved people, who only fought because his homeland was invaded. Most notable in spreading this idea was Shelby Foote in Ken Burns’ documentary The Civi War, who quotes a Confederate telling a Union soldier that he fought “because you are down here.”

And this is the argument put about now—that the average Confederate soldier did not fight for slavery, and therefore bears no shame for his part in the war. But why was the Union “down there” in the first place? Because the southern states had seceeded so they could continue slavery. From the moment the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, January 1, 1863, the Union was fighting to end slavery, and even before that date, many Union soldiers had that as a personal aim.

If the average poor Confederate really did resent the rich whites who hired substitutes to fight for them, why fight their war? Why fight and die so those rich whites could continue to control society and politics, have slaves, and keep poor white people poor?

No war is simple. There’s no one reason why poor southern men fought for the Confederacy. They fought, as all people do, for a mix of reasons; in this case, fear and anger at being invaded, a sense of having no choice but to enlist once war began, wanting to join their friends in the army, loyalty to rich white leaders in their own towns and counties, excitement at the prospect of war, resentment of the North’s “anti-southern” policies, and a host of other, private reasons. Union soldiers had the same mix, and many of the same inducements.

But no matter why they fought, they fought, and they fought for the Confederacy, to preserve its slave society. There’s nothing noble about that.

The one way we’re still fighting the Civil War is in our unending attempts to understand what it was about, in all its complexity. But a few concrete facts must guide that understanding, and the fact that it was a war fought for slavery, even by the lowliest Confederate soldier, is one  of them.

White Americans in the minority by 2019

A report issued by the Census Bureau, based on the latest census results, states that by 2019, the majority of children born in the United States will be non-white.

We’ve been looking at the 2010 Census results and race, and this new parsing of the data is interesting in many ways. First, let’s look at the facts:

–The Hispanic population is growing faster than white, black, or Asian populations because of Hispanic people’s higher birthrates.

–Why is the white birthrate so low? Because white people have fewer children and have them later in life.

–Thus, the white population is aging far faster than the Hispanic, Asian, or black population. The median age of white people in the U.S. is 41 years old, while the median age of Hispanic people in the U.S. is 27 years old.

–The number of white children in the U.S. has fallen by 4.3 million since the last Census was taken in 2000. The number of Hispanic and Asian children has increased by 5.5 million.

–The number of black children in the U.S. has also fallen by 2 percent. The report states that “Over all, minorities now make up 46.5 percent of the under-18 population”, but it seems they are hardly “minorities” at this point. White children are currently the minorities in 10 states.

It’s not surprising that groups with higher birth rates are outstripping those with lower birth rates, but of course it is nearly impossible for the nation to receive this objective data objectively. Many white Americans are no doubt concerned that they are losing their majority status in this country.

This is only natural. No group wants to lose its socio-economic-political power/control. Look at the vicious backlash that men’s groups deal out to women who support equal rights, that straight groups deal out to gay people who support equal rights, etc. Those who have power want to keep it—not universally, but generally. Not every man hates feminism, not every straight person hates gay rights. But a substantial portion—a majority—are opposed because these groups pose a threat to the male or the straight grip on power.

Now a substantial portion of white Americans may react with fear and anger to this news. It will add fuel to the fire of anti-immigrationists, and likely lead to calls for quotas on Latin American immigration. Those Latinos already in the U.S. will be castigated by some for not speaking English, taking U.S. jobs, and other actions that have nothing to do with how many children they have. I think Asian Americans will escape this vitriol for the most part, because it is Latinos who are the more visible immigrants.

One of the arguments of these white Americans will be that incoming Latinos do not respect, understand, or plan to support the “American way”, by which they will mean representative democracy, English speaking, and suburban comfort and norms. This is the same dire accusation leveled at Irish immigrants in the 1840s (no, they were not considered to be white at that time), Germans in the 1860s, Chinese people in the late 1800s-early 1900s, Italians and eastern Europeans in the early 20th century (again, not considered white), etc. Every new group is castigated as deliberately, gleefully destroying the nation they have just arrived in.

In all of these cases, the reports of the American way’s death were exaggerated. Will it be the same this time? It depends. It depends on education.

All of those previous immigrants were educated in American public schools that inculcated American values in them, sometimes cruelly, often with the excitement and true devotion that their teachers, former immigrants themselves in many cases, felt for their new country. In fact, making sure immigrant children got an American education in civics and the workings of the American democratic system so they would become loyal citizens was a key goal of American primary education for the bulk of the 20th century. And it worked. For most of the 20th century the average American was a first- or second-generation immigrant who knew a lot about the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights, due process, etc. That American voted and participated in the political system. And thus the American way, and the nation, did not die.

But I’m not sure that is true now. Now American K-12 education system has no real focus, riven as it is with internal and external conflicts, except perhaps for testing. And civics—learning about our government, its purpose, its structure, and the importance of citizen participation—is rarely a part of K-12 education. Many states no longer require that civics be taught at all. Schoolchildren today are ignorant of civics, and therefore the average American cannot name the three branches, how they work together, how the state and federal governments align, etc., and citizen political participation is at an all-time low.

And that’s for white children. What about the non-white children soon to make up the majority of American students? They are likely to go to the worst, most under-funded schools, where learning to read and write and do math is not guaranteed. They learn nothing about civics, about their government—except that so many people in that government don’t want them here. This will only get worse by 2019. As the Times article puts it, “Will the older generation pay for educating a younger generation that looks less like itself? And while the young population is a potential engine of growth for the economy, will it be a burden if it does not have access to adequate education?”

We all know the mantra that “children are our future.” It is true. If we want the American way to be the way of the future, if we want the country to be preserved as it is/should be, we must educate this non-white generation the way we educated previous immigrant generations, and the way we educate the white generation. We have to start treating children born in this country to Latino parents, and children whose parents bring them here, as the Americans they are, and give them the education we assume white children should have.

Because the real fear many white Americans have is that immigrant and black people will drastically change this country if they take the majority because they do not share “white values.” What are “white values”? American values assumed to be the natural birthright of white children but values that must be laboriously inculcated into non-white children, who somehow genetically resist them. Justice for all, innocent until proven guilty, government of by and for the people, etc. Those are American values. But they are not naturally a part of the makeup of white Americans—as we have noted elsewhere on the Historic Present—every American has to learn these values. They go against human nature, and human history. Everyone has to learn them, every new generation, black, white, Asian, or Latino. You get the nation you pay for. You reap what you sow. If we want the American way, we have to teach it. If we refuse to teach new immigrant American children about their country, if we throw civics education away, it is we who will guaranty the ruin of our country, not those children.

So these numbers should not panic anyone. We are privileged to live in a moment of real historical change in our country—one of many. If we cherish our country, we will make sure every child in it knows that s/he is an American, and we will teach every child what that means, and how to live it.

Race, segregation, and Census 2010—what does it mean?

In our final installment in the very short series on race and Census 2010, we try to draw some conclusions about segregation and integration in the U.S. today.

It may seem contradictory that many white Americans feel their towns and neighborhoods are home to more non-white residents than ever before at the same time that non-white segregation is holding steady or, for Asian Americans, increasing slightly. If a town goes from 90% white to 77% white, that is an appreciable, visible change—but it’s still a white majority that should be shrinking faster, given the pace of Latino and Asian immigration.

According to The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census (which is the official report by Logan and Stults, as referenced in part 2 of this series), “the typical white lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white, 8% black, 11% Hispanic, and 5% Asian. This represents a notable change since 1980, when the average whites’ neighborhood was 88% white, but it is very different from the makeup of the metropolis as a whole.” How is the average white American’s experience different from the “metropolis as a whole”?

The experience of minorities is very different. For example, the typical black lives in a neighborhood that is 45% black, 35% white, 15% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. The typical Hispanic lives in a neighborhood that is 46% Hispanic, 35% white, 11% black and 7% Asian. The typical Asian lives in a neighborhood that is 22% Asian, 49% white, 9% black, and 19% Hispanic.” 

There is an interesting chart that appears after this illustrating this data, which basically shows how likely you are to experience white neighbors according to your race. Asians’ neighbors are 50% white, Hispanics’ and black Americans’ neighbors are 35% white. White Americans’ neighbors are 77% white. Asian Americans are the only one of the four groups who do not live in neighborhoods in which they are the majority. In neighborhoods where most Asian people live, whites and Hispanics make up the majority of residents.

Assessing segregation and integration data by city requires a lot of background information. While black-white segregation fell dramatically in both New Orleans and Kansas City, in New Orleans it was because so many black people were forced to leave the city when Hurricane Katrina destroyed their neighborhoods, while in Kansas City the integration has no negative, temporary, “act of God” backstory—the people of the city are just integrating more.

The historian has to consider why it is black Americans who are still least likely to integrate in large numbers with white Americans. There’s never one reason. It’s a combination of factors, including the fact that Hispanic and Asian Americans are more likely to be considered newcomers who might adopt white culture, and therefore be acceptable, while black Americans are seen as possessing a unique culture that a) will never change and b) is diametrically opposed to white culture. The well-documented centuries of slavery and Jim Crow that describe black-white relations lead to suspicion and resentment, fear and anger on both sides, while the identically horrible racist campaigns against Asians in the late 19th- and early-to-mid-20th centuries are not as well-known outside the Asian American population, and therefore Asian Americans have more of a “blank slate”. Housing discrimination is still an issue, or course, most seriously for black Americans, but also for Latinos and Asian Americans. 

While color works against black Americans, language works against Hispanics. For at least 170 years, and maybe since 1700, Americans have inveighed against foreigners coming in and refusing to speak English, trying to overthrow English, working as agents of a foreign government. So it goes with Latino immigrants today. Latinos are moving away from their Latino immigrant neighborhoods—in 1980, 55% of Latinos lived in majority Latino neighborhoods, while in 2010 40% do. That’s quite a drop. And data shows that as Latinos raise families in the U.S., they are very likely to stop speaking Spanish entirely. A second-generation Asian American is far more likely to speak an Asian language than is a second-generation Latino American to speak Spanish.

This is just the barest summary of part of the information in the 2010 Census. Studying the Census is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking things you can do. This latest window into who we are as Americans has its depressing and its uplifting aspects. We have to take our cue from its findings and do what we can to keep integration moving steadily upward, and segregation vanishing into the past.

Segregation and Census 2010

In this second installment in a very short series on the 2010  U.S. Census results, we’ll look at one parsing of that data by John Logan of Brown University and Brian Stults of Florida State University . The focus here, at Census Analysis: Nation’s diversity grows, but integration slows, is black, Latino, white, and Asian residential patterns.

How is integration slowing? Here are the bullet findings:

  • Black-white segregation averaged 65.2 in 2000 and 62.7 now.
  • Hispanic-white segregation was 51.6 in 2000 and 50 today.
  • Asian-white segregation has grown from 42.1 to 45.9.

As Logan and Stults point out, white Americans basically live in mostly white neighborhoods—77% white. That is down from 88% white in 1980, but still pretty segregated. Black and Latino Americans live in black and Latino neighborhoods, and Asian Americans, whose integration rate into white neighborhoods had been growing, now increasingly live in Asian or other non-white neighborhoods.

Black and Latino neighborhoods are becoming even more homogenous. I happened to hear Dr. Logan on the radio explain it this way: if, in 1990, you were a Latino, you lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Latino, but not entirely. It might be 50% Latino, 30% black, 20% Asian. But in 2010, that same neighborhood is likely to be %70 Latino, 20% black, and 10% Asian. The same goes for black Americans–their neighborhoods are increasingly less racially diverse.

This is explicable when it comes to Latinos because of increased Latino immigration–there are more Latinos coming into the U.S. and moving into majority Latino neighborhoods. (This is particularly true in the southwest.) One in 6 Americans is now Latino; this is reflective of increased Latin American immigration since the 1970s.

In the case of black Americans, the increasing homogeneity of black neighborhoods may be due to the falling rate of Asian integration into white neighborhoods and the slow pace of Latino integration. Again, on the radio Dr. Logan said that white neighborhoods are usually integrated first by Asian people, then by Latino people, and then by black people. If fewer Asian and Latino people are integrating, there is less integration by black people.

It will be interesting to learn in a few years, when sociologists conclude their investigations, why Asian American segregation is increasing, and how quickly Latinos move out of new-immigrant neighborhoods into mixed neighborhoods. Every new immigrant group starts out in homogenous immigrant neighborhoods—every major American city has its Little Italy, Chinatown, Little India, etc. It’s natural to live amongst people who speak your language and share your experiences. But then they begin to move out, and to integrate into non-immigrant society. The fact that black Americans remain least likely to integrate is a red flag to all Americans, a wake-up call saying we all need to get over the slave-era idea that black Americans are different—too different—from all other Americans to assimilate.

While integration should move faster, I remain optimistic. At least it continues to happen. As usual, the U.S. leads the way in integrating people of literally every nation, race, culture, religion, and ethnicity in the world into one American people. As we see European nations just now beginning, in the last two decades, to try to cope with serious immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and struggling with race riots, protests, and fascist movements as a result, we remember that it is always hard for human beings to live together, and it takes a concerted effort to make that possible in this nation—an effort we have to continually renew.

Next time: summarizing the data