Waking Up to Racism

I’m 66 years old. And I’ve learned more about racism this year from reading three books than I’d managed to learn in my entire lifetime before.

The books, pictured above, read in this order: Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, and Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi.

Before I explain what these books have taught me, I need to write about how I got here in the first place. I’m a white guy from the suburbs of Detroit. I went to a very good public school system and a top-notch university. I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life. I’ve been aware of racism as an issue. I’ve tried my best to not be a racist. I’ve tried to be an ally.

But there are huge gaps in my knowledge of American and world history that kept me from realizing the true depth and impact of racism in my country. I am embarrassed by my own ignorance, and I’m doing my best to rectify the situation.

Up to a point, I can blame my education. “World History” as it was taught in school and college was a joke; it basically included European history plus a Euro-centric view of Middle Eastern history. When I was in college, Black Studies was starting to be a thing — but I never thought it relevant to me, since I was already a good white liberal who marched in Open Housing protests in my lily-white suburb.

Since I graduated (in 1978), I’ve been responsible for my own intellectual diet. I’ve read tons of books and thought myself well-educated, but I’ve never consciously chosen to read anything about race relations. Offhand, I can’t think of a single book I’ve ever read by a Black author. I’ve likely read one or two, but nothing that’s ever left a mark on my thick skull.

No W.E.B. DuBois, no James Baldwin, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston or Octavia Butler or Angela Davis or bell hooks, no Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. No Ta-Nehisi Coates, not even his run on Black Panther. I’ve never read a biography of a Black person, or anything focused on African history. My leisure reading is mainly sci-fi and mystery, but never have I ever read Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler or N.K. Jemisin or Walter Moseley.

And I’ll bet I’m far from alone among the ranks of NPR-listening, New Yorker-reading*, comfortable, well-meaning white folks. My lack of knowledge and perspective have severely hampered my ability to see the world clearly or to be an effective ally.

*I let my subscription lapse a couple years ago and made a deliberate decision to read more books. I’ve never regretted it.

So now, the books.

Well, first, a book that laid a foundation: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson, a single-volume history of the Civil War. But the war doesn’t actually start until page 273 — roughly one-third of the way through the book. In the preceding pages, McPherson explored the history that led to war.

And in it, he made crystal clear that for the South, the war was all about slavery. To the extent that Southern leaders talked of states’ rights, they were talking about the right to own slaves and ensure the continuation of slavery in the United States. So, fuck all that revisionist history shit.

Slavery by Another Name. Through a deep dive into mundane, everyday historical records, Blackmon discovered that slavery didn’t end in 1865 — it morphed into an even worse system that went unchecked for decades. My own conclusion after reading this book: You can make a good argument that the North won the battles but the South won the war. The Southern system, built on slave labor, survived well into the 20th Century.

Once Reconstruction was safely buried, the white Southern power structure rebuilt itself. And the U.S. government quickly abandoned any pretense of trying to protect Black people. Republicans are fond of claiming to be the Party of Lincoln; in actual fact, the GOP was all done with that by the year 1876, only 11 years after the war, when it made a deal with Southern Democrats to give Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in exchange for a promise to end any efforts to sustain Reconstruction. Yes, in 1876 the Republicans sold Black America down the river, and relinquished any claim to moral superiority.

The new slavery involved the criminalization of everyday behavior — and only enforcing the law on Black people. Once convicted of a crime such as loitering, gambling, miscegenation (never EVER enforced on white men victimizing Black women) or cursing at a white woman (really), Blacks were thrown into a system of forced labor from which few escaped alive. Black convicts were farmed out to plantations, mines, and other industries. Fines and other assessments kept them in debt, and thus in thrall to their masters beyond the terms of their sentences.

Among other things, this explains Black people’s fear/ambivalence toward law enforcement. Police were a willing instrument of their continued oppression. That leaves a mark.

This system didn’t end, in Blackmon’s telling, until World War II. Kendi would say the 1950s. Either way, there are still people alive today who were entrapped in post-slavery slavery.

This shines a new light on the issue of reparations. It’s not only about the long-distant centuries of enslavement; it’s about the continuing harm — and the rich profits reaped by Southern farms and businesses and by northern financial interests. One of the most notorious slave mines in Alabama was owned by U.S. Steel, which turned a blind eye to the evil practices that filled its coffers.

Also, the ready availability of “free” Black labor killed off a budding union movement in the South. White workers could always be replaced by cheaper Black convicts, so they were stripped of all bargaining power.

The Silk Roads. One of the jacket blurbs says this is “a rare book that makes you question your assumptions about the world.” What Frankopan reveals is that, for the vast majority of human history, the center of global finance, culture and governance was not somewhere in Europe, it was in an area we rarely think about except when trouble erupts: the lands between the Middle East and India, and south of Russia.

This is where the currents of global trade ran, and empires were built on the proceeds. This is where great civilizations rose and fell. These civilizations were not only successful financially and militarily, they were also wellsprings of art and culture to eclipse anything happening in Europe. And I include Greece and Rome in that statement. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Asian invaders penetrated partway into Europe and, uhhh, gave up because there wasn’t anything worth conquering.

It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 15th Century and the Age of Exploration that the world’s center of gravity shifted Westward. The colonial powers used their superior military technology (built through centuries of being constantly at war amongst themselves) and their mastery of the seas (because land-based empires had no need for navies) to pillage the world’s wealth and finally build civilizations worthy of the name.

A chief argument for racism is the “fact” that white European culture is fundamentally superior and has always been.

This. Is. A. Lie. On a global scale, our hegemony has occupied a brief moment of time. There is nothing inherently better about white people’s brains or brawn. We just happen to be on top right now, so we get to write and define history.

This book also laid bare my piss-poor knowledge of world history. How did I get most of the way through my seventh decade without being aware of Mansa Musa or Ibn Battuta, to name just two Africans who were among the greatest men who ever lived? Mansa Musa, king of a Malian empire of the 14th Century, was richer, smarter, more influential and more enlightened (for his day) than any European monarch I can think of. (Augustus Caesar came close in some respects.) Ibn Battuta, born in Tangier in the early 14th Century, set off on a three-decade journey around the world. He traveled an estimated 75,000 miles, much farther than that notorious homebody Marco Polo.

But IB was born on the wrong side of the Straits of Gibraltar, so he’s been erased from “world history” as we tell it.

Stamped From the Beginning. Subtitled “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” and it lives up to that billing. Kendi shows how racism was baked into the history of white people in America (North and South) from day one — and how it has persisted, and often thrived, ever since.

A common theme throughout that history is the assumption that white people are superior, and that people of color are “stamped from the beginning” as less than human, thus exploitable and expendable. You see where The Silk Roads comes in.

Two major ideas I took from Kendi’s book. First, it’s overly simplistic to say that America is in the process of shedding its racist heritage — that we are on a path of continual improvement. It’s more accurate to say that there are two opposing processes at work: continual progress, and continual reassertion of racism. There’s a waxing and waning of both. The Trump years (my view here) have been a great time for racism. In the #blacklivesmatter movement, we’re now seeing the antiracist response coming to the fore. Neither strain is predestined to triumph. One strain will never completely wipe out the other. It’s our yin and yang.

That “moral arc of the universe bends toward justice” thing? It’s only true if we keep pushing, keep bending it in that direction. Otherwise, that bad boy’s gonna snap back, just like (viz. Blackmon) after the Civil War.

The second idea is that Kendi doesn’t see racism and non-racism. He sees three camps: racist, antiracist, and assimilationist. To be “antiracist,” it’s not enough to refrain from overt racism — as I have tried to do throughout my life. No, you have to be an active part of bending the moral arc. You gotta keep pushing.

Which also involves, as I have failed to do until now, becoming educated on what’s really going on and why, and where it all came from. It means seeing the world through the eyes of people of color, indigenous people*, LGBTQIA+ folk, etc.

*For this, I highly recommend The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King.

Then there’s assimilationism, the base position of white libs like me and many Black people as well. Assimilationism, simply put, is the belief that Black people can make progress and achieve equality — but only if they leave behind their own mores and learn to act like white folks.

The problem is — well, one of the problems is — that you’re starting from an assumption that Blacks are essentially inferior. Which, per Frankopan, they are not. And you’re assuming that “good Blacks” will somehow convince racists that they were wrong. That doesn’t work, and it has never worked.

One small example of this: Whenever someone like Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. DuBois overcame the obstacles and achieved something, they were seen as exceptional Negroes, different from all the others. The exceptions that proved the rule of Black inferiority. Or even worse, if they were partly white — as the vast majority of Black Americans are, because black women were white men’s sexual playthings throughout the centuries of slavery — their achievement was credited to their white blood.

So, assimilationism sounds good in theory. But (a) it rests on a rotten foundation and (b) it doesn’t work.

My belated re-education is very much a work in progress. My on-deck circle includes The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and Caste by Isabel WIlkerson. Also The Republic For Which It Stands, the successor volume to Battle Cry in the Oxford American History series. Hoping to learn, among other things, more about the political abandonment of Black America in the late 19th Century. Right now I’m reading Travels With a Tangerine by the brilliant Tim Mackenzie-Smith, a British author who’s lived in Yemen for the last 30 years and has written a series of great books about travel and culture in the Arab world. In Travels, Mackenzie-Smith retraces Ibn Battuta’s route from Tangier to Constantinople.

I’m open to suggestions as well. I’d really like to read more about the great African civilizations that flourished before the Euros came stomping in and tearing everything to bits. I hope I’ve got a long life ahead of me, so I can at least dip my toe in the incredible diversity of the human story. And understand, at least a little, how we got where we are now.


2 thoughts on “Waking Up to Racism

  1. laurasibiliavt

    Great resource column John – thank you! I am almost finished with Caste which compares the systemic treatment of humans in India, Nazi Germany, and the U.S. period of slavery. Highly recommend.


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