The myth of the North being “more racist” than the South

Posted on June 22, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Slavery, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 3 of our short series of excerpts from the high school textbook American History: A Survey which deals with with one last reading from AH.

It’s a bitter irony that under the subheading “Black Abolitionists”, American History promotes the sickening myth that free black Americans living in the free states of the north before the Civil War were subject to more racism and worse living conditions than black Americans enslaved in the south:

Abolitionism had a particular appeal to the free blacks of the North, who in 1850 numbered about 250,000, mostly concentrated in cities. They lived in conditions of poverty and oppression often worse than those of their slave counterparts in the South.

—…if free black Americans were worse off than enslaved black Americans, why would abolitionism appeal to them? This logical fallacy begins a section that only gets worse.

We are getting this message for the second time; you’ll recall in part 1 of this series AH pushed the idea that immigrant factory workers were worse-off than enslaved black Americans. Again, we shudder at the comfort AH has with referring to human beings as “slaves” rather than “enslaved people” or “enslaved Americans”. Calling people “slaves” changes them from people to things, which is why the word exists. It allows you to go on to say things like this:

An English traveler who had visited both sections of the country wrote in 1854 that he was “utterly at a loss to imagine the source of that prejudice which subsists against [African Americans] in the Northern states, a prejudice unknown in the South, where the relations between the Africans and the European [white American] are so much more intimate.”

—Let’s unpack. The English traveler is Marshall Hall, an abolitionist who visited the U.S. and Canada and wrote The Two-Fold Slavery of the United States with the hope of appealing to slaveholders in the U.S. to end slavery. Hall’s purpose was to use positive energy to end slavery: rather than attack slaveholders as the inhuman monsters they were, he hoped to reach out to them as good people who would, by nature of their goodness, come to see that enslaving people was wrong. As he put it to them, “I take the liberty of addressing [myself] to you, because from you, I believe, all good to the poor African people in the United States must originate. …from your kindness and generosity, and sense of justice, any peaceful, beneficent, and momentous change in their condition must flow.”

Hall’s tactic is not in itself a bad one; you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and people you attack are not likely to come around to your way of thinking. But in his efforts to portray slaveholders as basically good people, Hall goes much too far.

Notice his title is the “two-fold” slavery of the U.S. Hall was taken aback by the difficult condition free black Americans lived in in the north. He had expected to see terrors and suffering in the slave south, and happy bliss in the free north. What he saw instead, he says, was “a [virtual] slavery to which too little attention has hitherto been paid.” Free black Americans in the north, says Hall, have it worse than enslaved black Americans in the south.

We immediately suspect that Hall was the guest of slaveholders who made sure that the people they held as livestock put on their best face for the visitor. “Happy” enslaved servants were given new clothes and good food for the duration of Hall’s visit, and were instructed to do all in their power to give him a good impression of slavery—or else. This suspicion is reinforced by Hall’s observation that

…the African in the slavery of the United States is usually so well cared for, that he is for the most part, according to the expression of Henry Clay, “fat and sleek”, and his numbers increase in a higher ratio than those of the European [i.e., whites]; whilst the African said to be free is so crushed by state legislation and popular prejudice as to provide for himself and family through extreme difficulties, and is at once wretched individually and scarcely increases his numbers as a race…

Much, therefore, as has been said of Abolition, I can scarcely regard it, under existing circumstances, as a boon to the poor African in the United States.

Quoting Henry Clay, the “great compromiser” who did so much to expand slavery in the U.S., in an antislavery book is pretty dicey. Clay had a vested interest in telling Americans that enslaved people were “fat and happy”.  Hall notes that freedom in the north is but technical, and therefore abolition as it exists in the U.S. is worthless. It is slavery by another name.

He goes on to elaborate this point in his very short chapter on Slavery: Its Cruelties and Indignities—a meager three pages that begin on page 118 in a book of over 200 pages. As Hall notes, “This has usually been the first topic with anti-slavery writers.” But Hall has little time for the physical cruelty of slavery because his entire labor is to show that physical slavery is nothing compared with spiritual bondage. As he puts it, “The cruelties of slavery are, at the most, physical. I have told you of moral and intellectual inflictions; of hearts rent asunder and of minds crushed.”

Yes, we may grant him his case that mental and emotional torture are equally bad, and sometimes worse, than physical torture. But they are both torture. Hall’s subsequent descriptions of physical cruelty against enslaved people turn the stomach. Clearly Hall was shown “happy” enslaved people but also allowed to see the “necessary discipline” that was sometimes “required” to keep enslaved people down. We will only quote one ad from North Carolina for a runaway that Hall includes:

Run away, a negro woman and two children. A few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face. I tried to make the letter M.

M. RICKS, July 18, 1838

“I tried to make the letter M” is a statement, an image, that is forever implanted in your mind once you read it. “Trying” to brand your initial with a hot iron onto a person’s face is a kind of barbarism that is hard to even take in. It is only possible if you don’t think of that person as a human being but as a piece of livestock that belongs to you. We realize the slaveholder likely failed to make the M because of the woman’s struggles and screams. Is this really better than “moral and intellectual inflictions”? Is this really incapable of “rending a heart asunder” and crushing a mind? Is being branded better than being denied a good job in the north? Hall seems to see people like Ricks as the exception that proves the rule that actual slavery is reliably better than the wage slavery faced by black Americans in the north.

And this is the man American History chooses to quote to American students today, in 2017, as a reliable, objective observer whose words are, apparently, proof that free black Americans would have been better off enslaved.

Somehow, we go on, back to AH:

This [quote from Hall] confirmed an earlier observation by Tocqueville that “the prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated.”

—But the famous French traveller through the United States was not supporting the idea that abolition was a lie; de Tocqueville was observing that in a nation where race-based slavery is legal, any black person who gains freedom will present a problem. The free black person is a rebuke and a challenge to the slave law; the free black person, by living a human life, shows that slavery is not part of God’s benevolent plan but an artificial human invention designed to turn people into livestock. And a slave nation does not want to see that.

Northern blacks were often victimized by mob violence; they had virtually no access to education; they could vote in only  a few states; and they were barred from all but the most menial of occupations.

—All of the statements about black Americans made here were also true of American women of all colors. Women were virtually enslaved in this way, and that enslavement was encoded in laws that did not let women vote, inherit money or property, or claim custody of their children. Yet we don’t find AH saying women would have been better off enslaved. (We hope not; we didn’t read their chapter on women’s suffrage…)

…For all their problems, however, northern blacks were aware of, and fiercely proud of, their freedom. And they remained acutely sensitive to the plight of those members of their race who remained in bondage, aware that their own position in society would remain precarious as long as slavery existed.

—We’re not sure what the first sentence means: black Americans were “aware of” their freedom? All of the language fails here, perhaps because of its shameful duplicity. Black American were sensitive to the “plight” of “those members of their race” who remained in “bondage”? A more honest sentence might read “they remained acutely aware of the horrors suffered by other black Americans who were enslaved and held as livestock”. 

But the worst is at the end, where apparently free black Americans were only aware of enslaved black Americans as a threat to their own freedom. AH makes it sound like free black resented and feared enslaved blacks for making their own lives in the north harder.

We’ll end for now with a reiteration of the fact that living with institutional racism and oppression is not, in fact, worse than being bred for sale. And while there was institutional racism and oppression in the free states before the Civil War, it is impossible to say that people who voted to end black slavery were “just as racist” as people who refused to do so.

Next time: we conclude with an example of the damage textbooks like this do.

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Gay marriage in New Jersey–continuing to overturn tyranny of the majority

Posted on October 22, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re happy to announce appearance #8 of this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage is resolved by a state court in its favor. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as New Jersey Governor Christie drops his attempt to stop gay marriage and the first couples are wed in that state:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Gay marriage and the tyranny of the majority—no more?

Posted on March 25, 2013. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

Yes, it’s the seventh appearance of this post, which we run each time the issue of gay marriage comes up in high court in the U.S. The first time was back on May 21, 2008, when California’s Supreme Court decided that banning gay marriage was unconstitutional. The original point was that whenever a court overturns a law, there are always those who squawk—incorrectly—that it has overstepped its authority. The judiciary in the U.S. is meant to overturn laws, even laws with great popular support, that are unconstitutional because they restrict peoples’ liberty for no good reason.

Overturning bans on gay marriage started out as an example of thwarting this “tyranny of the majority”, as de Tocqueville called it, but now that the majority of Americans support or do not care to ban gay marriage, this type of legislation is becoming a rebuke to tyranny of the minority. That’s heartening.

Here is the original post, resurfacing now as we circle back to California. The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to that original California ruling that made banning gay marriage illegal in the state:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule—the basis of democracy—ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature—Congress—cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

I heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Posting bail is un-American

Posted on January 26, 2010. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , , |

In light of the recent study that finds that one half-million Americans are in jail simply because they did not have the money to post bail, I am re-posting this consideration of the un-democratic nature of bail, first posted here in August 2008:

One of the great founding principles of the United States is the right of equal opportunity. This means that no one is born with political advantages; for example, in a monarchic society, someone who is born into the nobility has political rights and protections from the law that “commoners” don’t have. Therefore, people outside the nobility do not have equal opportunity to succeed in their society.

In the U.S., equal opportunity has been popularly enshrined in the notion of every American having the chance to live the “American dream”: everyone has equal opportunity to work, vote, succeed, own a home, go to school, and more. Ideally, no American is barred from these things because of their social class, income, color, or anything else.

We of course fight a constant good fight to make sure this is true in America. There are always some people who want to set up barriers to equal opportunity. But we can never let this happen, for, as Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in the 1830s, later wrote in Democracy in America, equality of opportunity is the thing that truly sets America apart, the jewel of our democracy.

de Tocqueville was bothered, therefore, by one commonplace in the American system that he felt was a slap in the face to equality of opportunity. Was it slavery? Unequal wealth? City slums? No. While he saw those things were aberrations in our democracy, one thing he chose to comment on in particular was posting bail.

This seems like a very small thing. If you’re arrested, you can post bail to stay out of jail until your trial. That seems fair.

But it’s not fair, because it gives those who have money an advantage over those who don’t. If you’re not poor you can post bail; if you’re poor, you can’t. So poor people go to jail, while others don’t.

And if you are accused of a horrendous crime, like murder or child sexual assault, you have to post a much larger bail, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This only guarantees that wealthy people will not be imprisoned while awaiting trial no matter what they are accused of.

Currently, this inequality of opportunity has come up in the context of immigration. If you are accused of being an illegal immigrant, you are most likely poor. Therefore, you can never post bail when you are arrested. And so you sit in jail until you are deported. Or, worse, you don’t even sit in jail, but are immediately put on a bus or a plane back to your native country.

This means your loved ones have no idea where you are. If you are never in a police station, you can’t make a phone call home to tell them. At least if you’re sitting in jail, your family knows what has happened. But illegal immigrants cannot post bail, and legal authorities know this, and so the whole process is skipped.

Even if an illegal immigrant is given a chance to post bail, everyone knows s/he will not be able to pay. Therefore, there is no real chance to protect oneself from immediate repatriation, no chance of having a trial.

One might argue that since illegal immigrants are not U.S. citizens, they cannot complain about not receiving due process. And one might feel that the problems of illegal immigrants are worlds away; U.S. citizens will never face this problem.

But you might. No one is guaranteed that they will never be arrested. Anything can happen. And if it does, will your wealth qualify you for justice, or will you sit in jail?

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Posting bail is un-American

Posted on August 12, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , |

One of the great founding principles of the United States is the right of equal opportunity. This means that no one is born with political advantages; for example, in a monarchic society, someone who is born into the nobility has political rights and protections from the law that “commoners” don’t have. Therefore, people outside the nobility do not have equal opportunity to succeed in their society.

In the U.S., equal opportunity has been popularly enshrined in the notion of every American having the chance to live the “American dream”: everyone has equal opportunity to work, vote, succeed, own a home, go to school, and more. Ideally, no American is barred from these things because of their social class, income, color, or anything else.

We of course fight a constant good fight to make sure this is true in America. There are always some people who want to set up barriers to equal opportunity. But we can never let this happen, for, as Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting America in the 1830s, later wrote in Democracy in America, equality of opportunity is the thing that truly sets America apart, the jewel of our democracy.

de Tocqueville was bothered, therefore, by one commonplace in the American system that he felt was a slap in the face to equality of opportunity. Was it slavery? Unequal wealth? City slums? No. While he saw those things were aberrations in our democracy, one thing he chose to comment on in particular was posting bail.

This seems like a very small thing. If you’re arrested, you can post bail to stay out of jail until your trial. That seems fair.

But it’s not fair, because it gives those who have money an advantage over those who don’t. If you’re not poor you can post bail; if you’re poor, you can’t. So poor people go to jail, while others don’t.

And if you are accused of a horrendous crime, like murder or child sexual assault, you have to post a much larger bail, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This only guarantees that wealthy people will not be imprisoned while awaiting trial no matter what they are accused of.

Currently, this inequality of opportunity has come up in the context of immigration. If you are accused of being an illegal immigrant, you are most likely poor. Therefore, you can never post bail when you are arrested. And so you sit in jail until you are deported. Or, worse, you don’t even sit in jail, but are immediately put on a bus or a plane back to your native country.

This means your loved ones have no idea where you are. If you are never in a police station, you can’t make a phone call home to tell them. At least if you’re sitting in jail, your family knows what has happened. But illegal immigrants cannot post bail, and legal authorities know this, and so the whole process is skipped.

Even if an illegal immigrant is given a chance to post bail, everyone knows s/he will not be able to pay. Therefore, there is no real chance to protect oneself from immediate repatriation, no chance of having a trial.

One might argue that since illegal immigrants are not U.S. citizens, they cannot complain about not receiving due process. And one might feel that the problems of illegal immigrants are worlds away; U.S. citizens will never face this problem.

But you might. No one is guaranteed that they will never be arrested. Anything can happen. And if it does, will your wealth qualify you for justice, or will you sit in jail?

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De Tocqueville on Red and Blue States

Posted on May 6, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , |

I was listening once again to Bill Cook’s fantastic lectures on De Tocqueville last night and he was on the section where De Tocqueville talks about political parties.

De Tocqueville describes two types of political party: great parties and small parties. Great parties, he says, overturn society, replacing one system of thought with another. Small parties agitate within society. So whereas great parties tear society apart and create a new society, small parties only degrade the existing society.

Great parties focus on ideas, the big picture, and the general effects of those ideas in practice. Small parties are petty, focused on individuals, immediate consequences, the here and now, and, above all, victory. Victory is more important than convictions, and when winning is job one, the small party will compromise its own values to win. The small party doesn’t really have a philosophy or faith in a set of values. It will adopt whatever policies allow for victory, and will scare voters by predicting that individuals from rival parties will cause immediate negative consequences for them.

When De Tocqueville was writing, in the 1830s and 1840s, there were no Republicans and Democrats as we know them; the two-party system was not yet in place in the U.S. But his description of great and small parties rings true today.

The party that says if Michael Dukakis is elected president, then Willie Horton will come to your house and kill you, is a small party. The party that wants you to focus on a gas tax holiday over the summer of 2008 while accomplishing nothing toward our long-term fuel problems, is a small party. The party that agitates against gay marriage while ignoring or generating the economic problems families face is a small party. The party that gives lip service to military personnel and their families while refusing to pay those personnel properly or support their families in any way if the on-duty family member dies in service, is a small party. The party that builds a wall to keep out immigrants while refusing to penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants, and while refusing to stop using the services of illegal immigrants itself, is a small party.

As we vote this year for a president, and as we vote in other years for Congress members, governors, state legislators, and the many referenda that come up in our individual states, we should remember De Tocqueville’s definitions of parties, and make sure we cast our vote for the party that overturns some long-held ways of doing things in order to create more common good, rather than the party that merely asks us to hate someone else in our country.

The party that tells you that your good can only come about if someone else is punished is the small party, and does not deserve your vote. The party that tells you that the U.S. must continue to do what it has been doing because to change course is to lose, that change is humiliation, does not deserve your vote.

Keeping De Tocqueville in mind whenever you go to the polls will remind you that this nation was founded on big ideas and overturning society for the good, and that no harm can come of Americans thinking big.

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The real allure of the Founders

Posted on April 18, 2008. Filed under: The Founders | Tags: , , , |

Everyone is loving the John Adams special on HBO, and with good reason. It’s well done, and gives a real sense of who Adams was. But does it really spell out why he was great?

I was reviewing a study of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the section where De Tocqueville talks about lawyers. To his mind, they are the linchpin of American democracy because lawyers combine a love and knowledge of democracy with a strong desire for stability and order.

Sounds like Adams, doesn’t it? What made him, and the other Founders, great was that they took their zeal for liberty and democracy and created a workable, stable framework for it to exist and thrive in. They knew that zeal alone resulted in anarchy. They had to combine passion with stability, and they did so with unprecendented success.

So when we see Adams fearing the mobs of Boston, or defending the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, or hammering out what seem like minor policy issues in the Continental Congress, what we see is Adams’ understanding that all that passion in the mob or the Congress has to find an orderly, sensible expression in government. Without government, passion is anarchy. Without good government, passion is killed.

Rather than seeing Adams’ focus on rules as pedantic or evidence of lovable curmudgeonliness, then, we should recognize it as the genius of democracy that De Tocqueville was wise enough to see.

We would be equally wise today to vote for politicians like Adams, who understand and love democracy and our founding principles, and combine that love with a desire to create stable, fair laws for our nation. At a time when politicians seem to rely more and more on stirring up the voters’ passions–usually about topics that have little to do with government–we need to step up and remind those who seek office that their job is to promote our democracy by creating laws that back our founding principles. If we were all passionate about that, we would be in a very good place.

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