The 1865 Lesson We Need to Get This Time

Will racial justice keep getting sacrificed in the name of “unity”?

Photo by Katie Rodriguez on Unsplash

Heading into 2021, we hear endless lamentations from commentators about ‘our divided country’, political polarization and pleas for national unity. But there has never been a time of lasting unity and peace. More importantly, putting “unity” above all else has historically served to uphold the structures of white supremacy.

A divided nation is not the great crisis we face. And it wasn’t in 1865 either — though it was characterized that way. Then like now, half of the country was throwing a fit and threatening to quit the project of a democratic nation if it didn’t get what it wanted. What they wanted — then and now — is the great crisis.

In 1865 and now in 2020, there is a movement organizing to preserve our inherited social order and double down on it — absolutely nothing is of greater importance to the people in this movement, not jobs, not healthcare, not safety, not reputation, not religion, not patriotism or national security, not the Constitution and certainly not democracy.

In her book released this year, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Pulitzer winner Isabel Wilkerson writes about the social order Americans are so deeply tied to like the bonds of mother and child. “Caste is the powerful infrastructure that holds each group in its place.” It is “a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups based on ancestry and often immutable traits…” It acts as “the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order.” Wilkerson explains that “the signal of rank” in the ladder of the caste system “is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance.”

The Trump populist movement, which now counts at least 74 million voters, is driven by an existential fear of losing their rank as America’s ruling caste. For many working class whites in particular, staying above Black people — the lowest rank that defines the bottom of the caste system — is the last thing they feel they have giving them a sense of self worth and a reason to get up in the morning. For Black people and people of color in the Trump movement, it can mean what Wilkerson calls “casteism,” or “seeking to keep those on your disfavored rung from gaining on you, to curry the favor and remain in the good graces of the dominant caste, all of which serve to keep the structure intact.”

The racial caste system is like the “the studs and joists” of the “old house” we “inherited” and still live in after four hundred years as Wilkerson writes. At no point in our history has there been any recognition of this, let alone reckoning around our nation’s core social infrastructure and how it harms us. The Civil War was waged for ‘the ultimate good of national unity’ for which all other aims were sacrificed. Imagine instead if the War had been fought for racial equity and justice; the aftermath might have led to public trials with real consequences for Confederates instead of amnesty and honors; there could have been a national truth and reconciliation process with reparations for Black Americans. Reconstruction would have been the national agenda and priority for generations instead of a hated federal government project cancelled after only a decade.

But because “unity” was the purpose of the Civil War — and not racial equity and justice — enormous concessions were given to the losers that allowed the caste system to thrive on. Cotton fields and plantations had been initially seized by the federal government when the North won; the land used to exploit human beings could and should have become the farms of freed people as it was in other nations when they abolished slavery. But not in the United States. In 1865, only months after losing the War, the slave owners’ land was handed right back to them, leaving Black Americans with no justice and no equity. Meanwhile, European immigrants arriving in the North were scoring big under the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1866. Discrimination kept Black Americans from actually acquiring these homesteads in large numbers which were being handed out like candy to people who just arrived from Europe — the first redlining.

Confederate leaders received merely a slap on the wrist — and it was for their treason, not for the inhumanity of slavery. They received amnesty and lived out celebrated and comfortable lives. They were buried in state funerals, had institutions named after them and had thousands of monuments erected of them across the nation — 230 of Robert E. Lee alone. It was the Confederates and slave owners in fact who received Civil War reparations and who won the pride and cultural heritage of the entire nation for generations to come.

Today there is a new sort of Confederacy being organized, not to secede from the Union, but to seize total power over the nation using the tried and true political strategy of fascism. While our democratic institutions are relatively strong in comparison to those of 1930s Germany, they are still very vulnerable under the right circumstances. We must remember that Hitler used electoral politics to achieve a fascist state. Upon becoming Chancellor of the German Parliament in January 1933, he had built an enormous political base and he persuaded the head of state to call for a new parliamentary election. The Nazi Party won 43% of the seats which they used to forge a 52% majority to pass the Enabling Act — the law that suspended democratic processes and allowed Hitler to make laws on his own without Parliament.

In the United States, the far far Right has the reins of the Republican Party which no longer has a stake in Constitutional democracy whatsoever. For years, Republican politicians have tested the waters and found again and again that their base not only permits them to actively and openly thwart democracy and the Constitution in the pursuit of racial caste system preservation, but it actually rewards them politically for doing so. To add to that, vast majorities of Republican voters (and some Democrats) are genuinely compelled by the wildest and most dangerous programs of propaganda being conducted on social media — the logical conclusion of which will be years to come of political violence, attacks and maybe worse to anyone who openly opposes the Republican agenda or even dares to think for themselves too loudly. Meanwhile, militias and hate groups have more than doubled in size and scope since 2016 and are sure to continue surging over the next four years.

These are the crises that political commentators, journalists and public figures need to put front and center of our attention as we go into 2021 — not endless hand wringing over political division and polarization as if conflict itself is the issue.

The Biden Administration and all those who value freedom and democracy must never be drawn into a strategy of appeasement with the rising new Confederacy inside the Republican Party. Political appeasement is a big part of the reason why we’ve never had reconciliation and racial justice — and it’s also how Nazi Germany convinced other European leaders to stand back while they quietly invaded their neighboring states.

The great demand of our time cannot be to ‘get along’ or to ‘hold together as a nation at any cost.’ History is clear that it doesn’t work that way. Meeting white supremacy half way is perpetuating white supremacy. We should be collectively ashamed of the Confederacy, not proud. And for today’s perpetrators of hate, there should be a national reckoning and accountability, not validation as a political ‘side’ that deserves to be heard. The people and the media must take a unequivocal stand: white supremacists will be called to account for their actions, boycotted and driven out of the debate stage.

Our great demand this time must be for racial equity and justice and to vigilantly safeguard Constitutional and democratic institutions from the growing threat of those who have the means, muscle and patience to creep the nation into a fascist state to achieve their aims. We can be sure that Trumpism will be in full mobilization in local elections in 2021, in the 2022 midterms and the 2024 Presidential election. The question is whether we will fight for racial justice with equal determination this time. That’s the only way we can get closer to national “unity” and peace.

Somewhere in the labyrinth of solitude. Parent to enormously inspiring kids, abolitionist and photographer.

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