This weekend’s reading: Two writers engage in thoughtful and provocative dialogue on race in America, a former senator makes a really stupid comment about race in America, and a historian helps sort things out.
Over the last few weeks, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates and New York’s Jonathan Chait have been arguing about race, poverty, and politics in the Obama era. Their dueling posts—here, here, here, here, here, and here—are extremely sharp and worth catching up on.
In contrast, here are some not-so-sharp thoughts on race in America:
Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people; it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong […] So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.
That was Jim DeMint, the former senator from South Carolina and president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Picking apart this bizarro-world version of U.S. history is fun, even if it’s low-hanging fruit (for one thing, he mixes up the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence), but let me use it as an opportunity to recommend a good book.
That book is David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which explains how worldviews like DeMint’s came to be. Blight’s book examines how, after the Civil War, white Americans desperate for North-South reconciliation purchased comity by downplaying, even ignoring, the still-uncomfortable truths about race in the America’s past and present. As Blight puts it: “The memory of slavery, emancipation, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments never fit well into a developing narrative in which the Old and New South were romanticized and welcomed back to a new nationalism, and in which devotion alone made everyone right, and no one truly wrong, in the remembered Civil War.”
This is the same impulse behind DeMint’s attempt to rewrite the history of slavery. The modern conservative movement, and especially the Tea Party, is deeply invested in the mythology of perfect Founders and a perfect Constitution. But there can’t be a perfect Founding unless the destruction of slavery is built into the system from the start. This results in a warped history resembling Blight’s “reconciliation” narrative: everybody is good, nobody is ever really wrong, and so Americans never really disagree. The Constitution, which initially sanctioned slavery and had to be amended, thus becomes “the reason that the slaves were eventually freed.” Likewise, “the conscience of the American people”—many of whom died protecting slavery and white supremacy—becomes the force behind slavery’s destruction. And the role of “big government,” which Lincoln used to crush the most important states’ rights cause in U.S. history, is denied altogether. As Blight shows, there’s a long, fascinating, and sad history behind this American way of thinking. Maybe you can find some more examples in DeMint’s new book, but without having had the pleasure to read it, let me suggest Blight’s instead.