Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

RACE

Who Is Afraid of Race?

There is a cost to advancing caste as the preeminent analytic in place of race—we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of anti-Blackness. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.

PANASHE CHIGUMADZI

Captives in chains after a 1904 uprising in what was then called German South-West Africa turned into a war of annihilation waged by German troops against the Herero and Nama peoples. (Ullstein Bild/Getty)

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020) marked its eighth week as a New York Times bestseller the same week that Trump publicly instructed a white militia group to “stand back and stand by” in the event of his electoral loss. This timing was uncanny. Caste is animated by the specter of 2042—the year that white Americans are predicted to become a racial minority in the United States.

A critical question lies at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

“I think what we’re looking at is South Africa,” Wilkerson tells civil rights historian Taylor Branch as they consider 2042 and the frightening idea of a white racial minority dominating a multiracial majority. Branch agrees with the South Africa comparison, adding, “They are more out front with their racism than here.” After the U.S. Civil War over slavery, the project of Reconstruction—meant to incorporate formerly enslaved Black people as full citizens—failed, largely due to white “backlash.” Historian Rayford Logan named this post-Reconstruction era—marked by Black lynchings, poverty, and disenfranchisement—the “nadir of [American] race relations.” Building on this nomenclature, Wilkerson notes that the Trumpian “backlash” to the Obama presidency has led many Black historians to identify our current moment as the “Second Nadir.”

In this Nadir, a world of wounds most recently laid bare by George Floyd’s lynching, Wilkerson anchors her book’s thesis—that caste is more helpful than race when it comes to explaining our racial “discontents”—in a somatic analogy: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.” In other words, Wilkerson contends that race is only skin-deep. If we want to get to the bone of the matter—the systemic oppression that continues to plague African Americans—we can only do so by naming and foregrounding caste. The book is then propelled across historical scenes from the world’s three dominant caste systems—the United States, India, and Germany—arguing that a more thorough understanding of the root of African American’s afflictions necessitates jettisoning race as the preeminent analytic in favor of caste.

Wilkerson defines caste as an “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.” “To recalibrate how we see ourselves,” she exchanges racial terms for caste-related ones, such as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower caste.” Extensively narrating interpersonal “scenes of caste” throughout the book, Wilkerson’s “caste” discontents are mapped almost exclusively in the realm of attitudes, imaginations, ideologies, prejudices, and microaggressions—and outside the mutually constituting realms of historical, material, and geo-political power.

In our world of unclotting wounds, Caste seemingly offers its “race-as-skin-deep” analysis as a kind of Balm in Gilead. If we are all bound by caste, instead of race and anti-Blackness, then it is easier to believe in our ability to overcome caste—to create, as the epilogue’s title suggests, “a world without caste.”

What would it mean to rethink race as caste in the global context? History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

Wilkerson’s book joins a tradition, mainly from the early twentieth century, of scholarship that challenged race’s preeminence by arguing that caste was a more useful analytic. Other kinds of challenges to the sociological reliance on race—for example, by Marxist scholars such as sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox—have often critiqued the use of both race and caste, naming class instead as the central antagonism. Few, though, have set aside race as completely as Wilkerson.

The tradition of Black Marxist scholarship—an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition—also gives us tools to be skeptical of Wilkerson’s refusal to name capitalism, imperialism, and nationalism in Caste’s world-historical analysis. For example, South Africa’s apartheid economy compelled its Marxist scholars, such as Neville Alexander, to realize the centrality of race and theorize “racial capitalism” before it was popularized by Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson. To its proponents, the term “racial capitalism” itself has always been tautological: When has capitalism not been racial or racializing? What is capitalism if not a system sorting who is most fit for suffering, exploitation, and extraction?

All this points to a critical question which should lie at the heart of a serious reading of Caste: Is there a cost to misnaming that which wounds us?

Consider this: Caste was published exactly one week before Namibia officially rejected a nearly 12 million dollar offer that Germany had made in compensation for its genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples over a century ago. Namibia, the former Southern African apartheid colony, was the site of Germany’s first twentieth-century holocaust during their 1904–1908 colonial war. Namibia rejected the offer not only because the sum was insulting, but also because Germany, Caste’s exemplar for a society that has overcome “caste” systems, has refused to apologize, having only recently even named the murder of close to 100,000 Herero and Nama people a genocide. Adding insult to injury, Germany refuses to name the offer as reparations—instead calling it “compensation” aimed at “healing the wounds.”

This, too, raises questions about Caste and its implications: If reparations by another name are not reparations, what is the cost of a name? In the long durée of “wounds,” what is the cost of the refusal to name?

The ongoing refusal of “post”-Nazi Germany—not only the book’s, but the world’s exemplar for historical reckoning and reconciliation—to name, repent for, and repair its sins against Black people within its national and imperial borders forces us to confront a more terrifying revelation about the modern world, race, and anti-Blackness: Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world.

Caste has been critiqued before in these pages for its analysis of the United States. Here I focus on what it would mean to take up Wilkerson’s project and rethink race as caste in the global context. History is clear on this point—the costs of the refusal to name the colluding global forces of anti-Blackness and capital are too high.

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In the book Wilkerson briefly interrogates some of the religio-mythical underpinnings of caste. However, her world-historical analysis largely frames Indian caste systems as untransformed across time and space by internal and external forces, such as the many racializing forces of Empire—trade, capital, imperialism, colonialism, slavery, indenture, and Aryan racial theory. Meanwhile, her analysis of contemporary Indian caste relations is framed by personal observations and interactions with Indian scholars of different castes at several academic conferences that she attended. Without naming global structural forces, caste appears fixed in this analysis—a timeless, ahistorical force. However, caste, like race, is both a historical and a social construct.

In Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil.

Of course, it is perhaps inevitable that a book intended to confront the modern discontents of race without naming “race” will fail to address how India’s peoples have been racialized by the same world-historical forces that “discovered” and transformed the New World. There is no New World without India and no India, as we now know it, without the New World.

Yet, in Wilkerson’s ahistorical vision of race and Blackness, the “American caste system” of racialized slavery appears almost completely sui generis on U.S. soil. In this analysis U.S. slavery transforms over the centuries unaffected by the rupture that, following Carribbean philosopher Sylvia Wynter’s work, we can call the New Worlding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade—the true genesis of our racial discontents. Whereas Wilkerson names 1619—the year when nineteen enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia—as the origin of our discontents, Wynter locates 1492—the year Columbus “discovered” Hispaniola on his failed quest to India—as the genesis of “A New World View.” This was a new view of “new” lands demanding new dehumanizing labor regimes under Transoceanic Empire’s racial capitalism. Kenyan scholar K’eguro Macharia writes of the rupture created by these new regimes of racialized capital:

New World blackness speaks not only to the blackness forged in—and on the way to—the Americas, but also to the blackness produced through the worlding of 1492. . . . To be more explicit: Africa does not—cannot—escape this (new) worlding. Blackness names, in part, the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora.

Wilkerson ignores this Black suture between Africa and Afro-Diaspora. When a Nigerian-born playwright informs her that, “there are no black people in Africa. . . . Africans are not black. . . [t]hey don’t become black until they go to America or come to the UK,” she uncritically agrees. As a Black person born in “post”-independence Zimbabwe and raised in “post”-apartheid South Africa, I did not need the United States or the United Kingdom in order to be aware of my Blackness. Both Wilkerson and her Nigerian counterpart fail to see that, conscious of it or not, no Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

No Black person anywhere has escaped the Blackening of New Worlding.

In the process of New Worlding, the advent of Blackness as bounded with slave-ness—which is to say, Blackness as unbounded from claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—began with the twinned dawn of Transatlantic Slavery and Modernity. This relationship is continually reinscribed by the “second coming[s]” of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, settler colonialism, Jim Crow, and apartheid, and their mutations in the “post”-modern world—neo-colonialism, “the New Jim Crow,” the Mediterranean crisis, and the contemporary enslavement of Africans in North Africa.

In the rupture of New Worlding, Blackness is the suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. This suture creates reverberating chambers where we are continually blackened by each other’s sufferings. Just as all of us were blackened by the Transatlantic slave trade, we were blackened again by the Scramble for Africa and with it, Germany’s Herero and Nama Holocaust.

Caste, ignoring this historic Black suture, does not include the Herero and Nama genocide in its analysis of Germany. Instead, it uses the Third Reich’s reign as an anchoring timeframe for Germany’s sins, highlighting Nuremberg, reparations, and the public attention to Holocaust history as examples of racial overcoming in “post”-Nazi GermanySilent on the resurgence of Holocaust-denying and anti-immigrant German right-wing extremism that led to the 2019 Halle Synagogue attack, the book insists that, “to imagine an end to caste in America, we need only look at the history of Germany.”

Surely, we need more than this—“post”-Nazi Germany cannot be held as the exemplar for overcoming race or caste systems. We must instead look at the history of the world.

Anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences has consoled and cohered all nationalisms and nation states.

When we map the history of the modern world and mark time by Black lynchings—spanning from the Arab, Transatlantic, and Indian Ocean slave trades to the apartheid government sponsored intra-Black violence and massacres that marked South Africa’s “democratic transition” to the “Rainbow Nation”; from “post”-apartheid South Africa’s recurring violence against Black “foreign nationals” to the country’s 2012 Marikana massacre; from the Nigerian government’s massacre of citizens protesting the brutality of the SARS police unit to the present-day enslavement of Africans in North Africa; from the Mediterranean crisis to China’s 1988–1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests; from India’s recurrent attacks on its African students to Chinese corporations’ human rights abuses on the African continent; all the way through to Southern China’s denial of medical treatment to African migrants in the wake of the global Sinophobic COVID-19 backlash—we find that anti-Black violence in all its variances and valences consoles and coheres all nationalisms and nation states.

Black suffering sutures the wounds of the world. The moral arc of the universe does not bend toward justice. When we mark modernity’s time by Black lynchings, there is no “historical progress.” Instead, world-historic lynch-time continually returns us to the Nadir.

If, in this Nadir, 2042 is the spectral wound of the United States, then Southern Africa is its lodestar. Southern Africa in the Nadir, at the dawn of what I call Apartheid Modernity, offers itself as a historic limit case in which Indian caste and race politics intersected with German genocidal eugenics and rising Jim Crow style “separate development” policies. Southern Africa is a world-historic limit case of race, caste, and class entanglements on which we can test the durability of Wilkerson’s caste thesis. When we shift the axis of Caste’s world-historical analysis here, to Southern Africa, it cannot hold under the weight of Apartheid Modernity.

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In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith remarked that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”

Just as there is no India as we know it without the New World, there is no India as we know it without the Southern tip of Africa. On his “Voyage of Discovery,” Vasco da Gama opened a new route to India by circumnavigating the Southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good of Hope. The very Natal colony that transformed “Mohandas to a Mahatma” had been so christened by a reverent da Gama as his ships skirted its treacherous coast over Christmas of 1497. “The birth of Christ” coincided with the birth of Transoceanic Empire and, with it, the birth of Transatlantic Slavery.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa with Gandhi, it had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands.

Centuries later, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, imperial expansion succeeded Transatlantic Slavery. New forms of imperialism across the Black Atlantic mirrored African Americans’ post-Reconstruction suffering in what I call the the Transatlantic Nadir. Following the 1815 Paris Treaty’s prohibition of slavery, the first half of the nineteenth century was marked by a widespread transition from slavery to subjecthood throughout the British and French Empires. The Transatlantic Nadir began in Jamaica, where Black people were brutally massacred for revolting against post-emancipation injustice and poverty in the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion. This portended a “backlash” to British imperial reconstruction. Several stunning reversals in the “post”-slavery status of Black people followed Morant Bay, including the “backlash” to U.S. Reconstruction, the Scramble for Africa, the Southern African minerals revolution, the end of the civilizing mission in favor of the rule of law and order after the Indian Mutiny, the rise of eugenicist scientific racism, and the Herero and Nama genocide, the first holocaust of the twentieth century.

The advent of the Transatlantic Nadir portended the rise of Apartheid Modernity—twentieth-century “modernity’s ignoble paradox” of “progress” propelled by the “post”-slavery world’s anti-Black regimes of racial hierarchy, labor, violence, and genocide based on the “separate development” of citizen and subject races. At the turn of the twentieth century, the “Gilded Age”—of extractive racial capitalism, unprecedented material excess, untrammeled pursuit of profit and imperial expansion, and industrial and technological advancements symbolized by the telegram and the train—was secured by coercive labor and governing regimes. These regimes reinscribed Blackness with slave-ness: that is, they seized any claims to autonomy, bodily integrity, territory, and sovereignty—let alone citizenship. In other words, Apartheid Modernity’s train was mechanized by the “ignoble paradox” that Cornel West theorized and Dambudzo Marechera poeticized, writing, “The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh when the whole length of it was through with eating him. And the same thing is happening to my generation.”

During that Nadir, Mahatma Gandhi crossed the Kala Pani, the “black waters” of the Indian Ocean. Gandhi arrived in Durban, the South African port that would become “the largest Indian city outside of India,” as a “passenger Indian” thirty-three years after the Truro arrived from Madras in 1860 with the first 342 Indian indentured laborers. Indian people had been indentured across South Africa’s Natal colony, East Africa, Fiji, the Caribbean, and the Mascerene Islands since the early nineteenth-century abolition of slavery across the British and French Empires. Those first making the passage to the British colony of Natal were primarily Hindu, from India’s low to middle castes. However, the indentured often gave false information. Sometimes they gave a lower caste because colonial authorities did not want Brahmins and Muslims; other times, a higher caste to improve their social status.

The Kala Pani crossing molded caste along new contours. On the ship forced intimacy made it impossible to respect caste, as migrants of different castes had to eat and sleep together. Once on land the colliding approaches of the “free” and indentured migrants, and the settler colonial authorities who saw them as “all coolies,” remapped caste along regional contours. These remolded categories were reinscribed with color and physical traits; Kalkatia reflected the “fair” Aryan north of India and Madrasi, the “dark” Dravidian south.

The relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent.

When caste traveled to the southernmost region of Africa in that Nadir, it also had to define itself in relation to another colonized people—the “natives” who were being jostled out of their lands. Since the arrival of Indian indentured laborers in a settler state increasingly bent on the “separate development” of races, the relationship between Black and Indian people as fellow colonized people in South Africa has been complex and ambivalent. This is marked by lows, such as the conservative anti-Black racial politics of the Gandhi-led Natal Indian Congress (NIC) (the colony’s first Indian nationalist political organization) and the resurgence of the “Indian question” in post-apartheid politics. It is also marked by highs, such as the 1955 Congress of the People, the 1970s and ’80s Black Consciousness Movement’s radical solidarity politics, and the widespread rejection of the 1983–1994 Tricameral Parliament’s exclusion of the country’s Black “non-citizens.”

The Gandhian era of South African Indian politics marked a significant low point in this history, representing its own Nadir between Black and Indian people. Between 1893 and 1914, as historian Jon Soske concedes in Internal Frontiers: African Nationalism and the Indian Diaspora in Twentieth-Century South Africa (2017), the “South African Gandhi” helped cement a conservative tradition of Indian diasporic politics reliant on a rhetoric of Indian civilizational superiority vis-à-vis African inferiority.

In 1894 Gandhi founded the NIC after being infamously discriminated against on a train in South Africa. Days into his arrival, he was thrown off a train when a white man complained about sharing his first-class compartment with a “coloured man.” This train incident, in Gandhi’s words, “sowed the seed of the fight for national self-respect.” Just days before Gandhi had discovered that, in the South African settler colony, “all Indians were called ‘coolies.’” On that train, icon of Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi, a conservative Gujurati Bania, came to see the need for a unified Indian racial nationalism that could encompass—without subvertingcaste and class, region and religion, and motherland and diaspora. Yet, even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Even after the crossing of the Kala Pani, Gandhi refused a Blackening of his people. Instead, he threw Black people to the twentieth century’s wheels and cast his people’s lot with Empire.

Indeed, one of the first major political acts of Gandhi’s NIC was to press against the Durban Post Office’s two separate entrances for “Europeans” and “natives and Asiatics.” The NIC did not want “natives” and “Asiatics” grouped together—they wanted three separate entrances. In The Green Pamphlet (1895) Gandhi explained, “We felt the indignity too much and . . . petitioned the authorities to do away with the invidious distinction and they have now provided three separate entrances.” In this appeal to the Indian public, detailing the grievances of “Her Majesty’s Indian subjects” laboring in South Africa, Gandhi decried the fact that “Indians are classed with the natives of South Africa—Kaffir races.”

When caste and Gandhi traveled into the southernmost tip of Africa, they were transformed by the race-making pressures that erupted into the 1899–1902 South African War, fought between Boer and Briton over the world’s richest store of minerals. Southern Africa’s minerals revolution began when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley in 1866. The minerals revolution then accelerated twenty years later, when 40 percent of the world’s gold stores were discovered on the Witwatersrand at a moment when gold had just recently become the foundation of the global economic system. This discovery exploded into one of the world’s most dramatic industrial and social transformations, and a crisis for British imperialism during the South African War. It was in this moment of imperial crisis that Gandhi’s struggle to obtain rights for Indians as British subjects found the perfect stage. Through service in the South African War already, Gandhi reasoned, Indian subjects had “put their shoulders to the wheel” and “drawn forth the admiration of the violent Colonials who, for the first time then, saw the good trait in the Indian.”

Gandhi was unmoved by the suffering of the 120,000 Black people who were caged in concentration camps during the South African War, and the fates of the 20,000 who died there. Rather, his racially impaired witness of the world’s first concentration camps provided the vision for his philosophy of principled suffering, Satyagraha. Gandhi’s anti-Black vision ensured that only the suffering of Afrikaner women and children was visible in his moral witness.

Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance.

In contrast, Black peoples across the Atlantic keenly understood that the South African War was a referendum on global “post”-slavery racial citizenship and governance. Indeed, the war became the major impetus for the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. The instigators of the Pan-African Conference were Henry Sylvester Williams, the Trinidadian barrister who became the first Black person to be called to the South African bar, and Alice Victoria Kinloch, the South African activist who was known in British circles for her impassioned protests against the Black suffering she had witnessed while living on Kimberly’s diamond fields. The Conference convened, in part, over “the compound system in vogue in the mining district of South Africa” and culminated in a petition for Queen Victoria to intervene in the suffering of her Black “subjects” in British South Africa. Attendees of the conference knew that the South African War was a crucible—Queen Victoria’s response to South Africa’s “native question” and the plight of her imperial subjects would ripple across the “post”-slavery Empire and beyond. If Britain—the vanguard of the liberal abolitionist movement, the refuge for African Americans before and after the U.S. Civil War, the purveyors of Cape’s qualified non-racial franchise, and the presumed protector and progenitor of Black freedoms—chose to betray its promise of imperial citizenship and endorse segregation in South Africa, formerly enslaved Black people would be reinscribed as non-citizens across the world.

Accordingly, despite the fact that no South Africans could attend the Pan African Conference, at least half of the presentations referred to the “South African question.” In his address on the question—“Organised Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race their Battlefield”—the Dominican lawyer George James Christian drew a Transatlantic line between Africans who “were stolen from their native shores in the 16th century and were now jostled out of their lands.” He concluded, “What was this if not the revival of slavery?”

Indeed, across Southern Africa, Black miners were referred to as chibaro, or slave labor. The Pan-Africanists understood and felt the Black suture between Africa and Afro-diaspora. The “revival of slavery” at the Southern tip of Africa at the turn of the twentieth century threatened to reinscribe the status of all free Black peoples with slave-ness, denying any claim to citizenship in the “post”-emancipation world. W. E. B. Du Bois was one of the notable attendees of the Conference. Du Bois and his colleagues debated the South African “native question” and the American “negro question” alongside issues such as the corvée and the Belgian Congo. The Pan-Africanists concluded by prophesying the advent of Apartheid Modernity in their “Address to the Nations of the World,” declaring that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”

Just as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War.

In the end, British victory in the South African War extended the global color line and plunged the world further into the Transatlantic Nadir. “Free” Black people could not be incorporated as citizens in “post”-slavery EmpireJust as the North betrayed its promise of citizenship to Black Americans after the U.S. Civil War, Britain betrayed its promise of imperial citizenship to Black people in the wake of the South African War. In the House of Commons, British Parliamentarians cited Reconstruction’s supposedly failed “negro rule” of the multiracial U.S. South as they passed the 1909 South Africa Act that offered Black citizenship as the sacrifice for a unified white laager. Just as African Americans had paid a price for white reconciliation in the United States after Reconstruction, Black South Africans paid, too.

In the post-war years, much of the Union of South Africa’s “separate development” found inspiration and assistance from the post-war U.S. South’s “seperate but equal” regime. The Union of South Africa’s 1910 constitution was based, in part, on the Jim Crow South; the “grand architect of apartheid,” Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, was widely known as an “expert in American social science” and “social welfare systems”; and the Carnegie Corporation collaborated with the Verwoerd’s Stellenbosch University and the Dutch Reformed Church on the 1932 Commission on the Poor White Problem in South Africa, which provided the blueprint for the official institution of Grand Apartheid in 1948. Across the Atlantic, apartheid was the cost of national reconciliation between warring whites.

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On the train to Apartheid Modernity, Gandhi was concerned that Indian people would be classed with the “raw Kaffir.” In 1906 the Bambatha Uprising, the last armed resistance against settler rule for decades, broke out in Natal over the poll taxes press ganging Zulu people into the colonial labor market. Gandhi, who railed against taxes on Indian people, recruited his people to serve as stretcher-bearers for the British Empire’s defense, just as he had done during the South African War. Clearly his investments in Empire had not dissipated; Gandhi was still actively fighting against the interests of his fellow colonized Black people so as not to be “dragged down” to their level in Empire’s racial hierarchy.

Considered the jewel of the British Empire, India did occupy a privileged position in the hierarchy of imperial possessions. “In geopolitical terms,” historians Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed write in The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (2015), “Indians in South Africa counted far more than the Zulu, a sense that Gandhi was keen to tap into.” Gandhi would have been pleased to know that, in 1903, a British Indian Civil Service official told a Natal government delegation that “the Indian is not on a level with the kafir; he belongs to a higher class. The Indian trader is almost as advanced as ourselves.”

Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste.

Gandhi and the NIC’s disavowal of Black people was not unique across the British Empire’s Indian diaspora. As Desai and Vehad demonstrate, Gandhi was embedded in the Transatlantic Nadir’s “Aryan moment”—when Aryan racialism spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora and complicated questions of caste. Like many other members of South Asia’s political elite, who used British Orientalist thinking in the formation of new nationalist and Hindu identities, Gandhi marshaled an Indo-Aryan racial history. This was an attempt to forge, in his own words, an “imperial brotherhood” between the “Western and Eastern branches” of civilization to the exclusion of “lesser” Black peoples.

A few years before Gandhi’s indignation at being classed as a “coloured man” on that South African train, the British Prime Minister Robert Salisbury derided Dadabhai Naoroji, “the Grand Old Man of India,” as a “black man” undeserving of the Englishman’s vote after his 1886 British parliamentary defeat. Naoroji, an early Gandhi supporter, was a Parsi scholar and trader who enjoyed the support and confidence of Indian people across the globe as the President of the Indian National Congress.

furor erupted across India and its diaspora over the Grand Old Man of India’s supposed “blackness.” The Amrita Bazar Patrika condemned Salisbury for calling “one of India’s leaders a nigger.” The Hindu Punch published a cartoon of Nairobi and Salisbury, coloring the Prime Minister black and, therefore, darker than Naoroji. The Manchester Guardian informed Salisbury: “A little inquiry into the rudiments of Indian history would show Lord Salisbury that the Aryan races who entered India from the north prided themselves on their fair complexions.”

Across the British Empire, the public scandal over “Salisbury’s Blackman” coalesced around what historian Antoinette Burton calls the “triangular relationship between Englishness-as-whiteness, Indianness-as-brownness, and Blackness-as-Africanness” where “Africa was, in other words, the unspoken Other not just of Englishness but of Indianness as well.”

In that Transatlantic Nadir, Blackness was bound with slave-ness. Long before the Bandung Conference, Black Consciousness, and Black Power, many South Asian political elites rejected political Black solidarity. As Burton writes:

As late as the 1880s, “black man” was an appellation which in no way could enhance—and indeed, could only endanger—any subject’s chances to achieve recognition as a citizen, much less as a civic representative of the people in the Mother of all Parliaments. It carried with it associations of slavery and subjugation that imperiled Naoroji’s claims about the special qualification of Indian civilisations and people to direct representation.

Suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black.

And yet, as Naoroji’s biographer R. P Masani suggests, it was this very spectacle over his “blackness” that gave him the public profile and sympathy that secured his parliamentary win later on. Prime Minister Salisbury was forced to formally apologize for having offended the Jewel of the British Empire. The Irish nationalist Freeman’s Journal declared Naoroji’s election “the only real reparation that can be made to the Indian people.” A “reparation” for the wounds of associated Blackness.

The Nairoji scandal lays bare how anti-Blackness gave Empire its coherence and could be mobilized for political gain. According to the racial logic of Empire, suffering Indian colonial subjects could be consoled by the fact that they were “at least” not Black. More than a “scene of race,” Gandhi’s South African “train moment” was a scene of historic anti-Blackness.

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Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, the stakes in naming Gandhi’s anti-Blackness are high. The historic “Indian question” and accusations of Indian anti-Blackness have once again begun to dog political debates in “post”-apartheid South Africa. In 2014 a vigilante crowd looked “startlingly like a lynch mob” as they yelled “Victory for Mother India” and beat three African students in a New Dehli train station. This occurred as India’s prime minister visited the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial with President Obama. A year later a Gandhi statue was vandalized in South Africa. Then, in 2018, the University of Ghana removed its Gandhi statue.

Political Blackness, the idea that all racially marginalized groups can identify as “politically Black” to unite against racism, no longer seems viable. Members of Black Lives Matter UK recently questioned the erasure of Black women and the casting of Frieda Pinto as the lead of a British Black Panther series. There was backlash to Afro-Punk’s decision to bill M.I.A., the politically complicated and politically Black identifying British rapper of Sri Lankan Tamil descent. The UK’s Black Student Campaign (BSC), “the largest organisation of Black students in Europe” representing “all students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean heritage,” launched a campaign to debate and re-think its name.

Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles.

The costs of a name are clearly high. Perhaps Wilkerson chooses not to name race, and in particular anti-Blackness, in an attempt to elide some of the more fraught dimensions of our interracial solidarity struggles. When the divine ordinance of Empire is divide and rule, naming the anti-Blackness of your comrade-in-arms is a taboo—impolite and identitarian at best, and divisive and representative of false consciousness at worst. But, we must ask, what kind of solidarity are we building if we cannot reflect honestly on our different historical positionings in Empire’s racial order?

In this Nadir, an honest reckoning with history demands that we recognize that Gandhi refused anti-colonial solidarity and, instead, embraced anti-Blackness throughout his twenty-one years in South Africa. Though he later complicated his politics, the “South African Gandhi” navigated the dizzying nexus of Black and Indian race, and class and caste entanglements, by disavowing his fellow colonized Black people. Gandhi continually named Black South Africans with the same murderous epithet that had first been formed in the mouths of Arab slavers, who passed it on to Portuguese slavers, who in turn passed it on to warring Boer and British slaver-settlers, whose tongues imbued its inhumanity with fresh intensity when they sacrificed Black people at the altar of a unified emergent apartheid state at the turn of the twentieth century. Gandhi, like many of his caste, railed for an Indo-Aryan “imperial brotherhood” at the expense of the “raw Kaffir.”

This is not a call to “cancel Gandhi.” Instead, reflecting on his formative years in South Africa offers a chance to name and confront the kinds of historic anti-Blackness that plague our solidarity struggles today. Under “post”-Apartheid Modernity, our examinations of race, caste, and political solidarity will demand more political honesty and analytic rigor. Between cynicism and sentimentality, clear-eyed solidarity can lead us out of this Nadir. Wilkerson’s world historical analysis fails to do this.

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Wilkerson’s caste thesis cannot hold under the weight of “post”-Nazi Germany, either. In Caste’s epilogue Wilkerson contends that “post”-Nazi Germany “is living proof that if a caste system—the twelve-year reign of the Nazis—can be created, it can be dismantled.” The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign. This speaks to the anti-Blackness of the liberal humanist post-World War world—Germany can be hailed for its supposed humility before its Nazi history while it remains unrepentant for its colonial sins, such as the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, the Herero and Nama genocide, and the massacring of up to 300,000 in the Maji Maji Uprising. And what of Germany’s historic and often murderous exclusion of Afro-Germans? This is part of the obfuscating cost of using caste as the preeminent analytic. In so doing we lose the precision that comes with naming our affliction a problem of race and, in particular, anti-Blackness.

The trouble with holding Germany as the exemplar of historical reckoning is that Germany’s crimes did not begin and end with the Third Reich’s reign.

Caribbean-American poet Audre Lorde was clear eyed about Germany’s historic anti-Blackness all through her eight transformative years in West-Berlin. Having arrived in Germany the year after the 1983 U.S. invasion of her ancestral Grenada, Lorde understood the quiet violence of Empire. Even as Germany’s state-subsidized bohemia gave her “a certain amount of room to be” when she arrived in 1984, the spirit of witness moved Lorde to map haunting worlds of Afro-Diasporic border crossings from Grenada, to the United States, to St. Croix, to divided Berlin in her poem, “Berlin Is Hard on Colored Girls” (1984).

During Lorde’s Berlin years, she sought out and collaborated with women of Germany’s Black Diaspora—including the writers May Ayim, Katharina Oguntoye, Helga Emde, and Ika Hügel-Marshall—to birth the Afro-German movement. This was central to Lorde’s Black queer anti-imperialist praxis, her radical embodiment of what Édouard Glissant called a “poetics of relation.”

A century and a half after Hegel declared that Africa had no history, Ayim and Oguntaye published the first scholarly study of Afro-German history, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (1986). Making the first written use of the term “Afro-German,” they proclaimed: “our history did not begin after 1945. Before our eyes stands our past, closely bound with colonial and national socialist German history.” Showing Our Colors made visible a Black historical line going as far back as the Middle Ages. The line marches forward through the Berlin Conference, through imperial expansion and genocide in Africa, and through war-time interracial liaisons between white German women and Black troops from the United States, France, Belgium, and Britain to the present day.

The lives of Showing Our Colors many multi-generational Black German-born and raised authors attest to a Germany invested in “Germanness” as a distinct racial and cultural Volk heritage. Even the authors’ family members seem incapable of imagining someone who is both Black and German. Spared the death camp sentences, sterilizations, and forced abortions that “half caste” people from Namibia’s Rehoboth to the Rhineland faced across Germany’s history, many of Showing Our Colors women were instead sent away to orphanages.

Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness.

“And where do you come from? And your father? And your mother?” These national questions have echoed across the lives of generations of Afro-Germans. Regardless of their complete self-identification as German—regardless of their shared biology, culture, and language—native-born Afro-Germans remain outsiders to their families and their nation. Even after the Berlin Wall fell and swept the world into Wende triumphalism, Afro-Germans grappled with double-consciousness—their own historical estrangement and trepidation at the eruption of anti-Black violence amidst their fellow Germans’ national reunification euphoria.

Lorde heard her sisters’ cries. She heard the call to witness. At the dawn of “post”-Apartheid Modernity, in the midst of Die Wende, the triumphalist “post”-Berlin Wall “turn” heralded as the End of History, Lorde’s border-crossing poetic vision foregrounded modernity’s “ignoble paradox” of Black pain enfolded in national “progress.” A month after the Fall, Lorde’s poem, “East Berlin December 1989,” a geopolitical anachronism questioning the “progression” of national time and foregrounding world-historic lynch-time, begins unequivocally: “It feels dangerous now/ to be Black in Berlin.” Her unflinching witness continues:

Already my blood shrieks

through the East Berlin streets

misplaced hatreds

volcanic tallies rung upon cement

Afro-German woman stomped to death by skinheads in Alexanderplatz

The Black woman died under the wheels of Die Wende’s new century. In modernity’s wake, Black is forever out of time and out of place. We are all bound by our historical estrangement from the modern nation state.

Standing at the precipice of History, amidst suffering, dislocation, and alienation, Ayim’s poem “borderless and brazen: a poem against German u-NOT-y” (1990) offers us a vision:

i will go

yet another step further

to the furthest edge

where my sisters—where my brothers stand

where

our

FREEDOM

begins

i will go

yet another step further and another step and

will return

when i want

if i want

and remain

borderless and brazen

If freedom is our vision, we must cross the border, we must go to the furthest edge. If we are to undo anti-Black violence, then we must undo our investments in the nation state. In the murderous face of Empire, Lorde’s border-crossing poetics of relation “fus[es] the best of all of our heritages.” In her introduction to Showing Our Colors, Lorde implored“We must share the strengths of each other’s vision as well as the weaponries born of particular experience. First we must recognize each other.”

This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to go to the furthest edge. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

Indeed, the key trouble with Caste is that it lacks what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “Black History’s Global Vision.” In “But A Local Phase of Global Problem” (1999), Kelley looked back at the lessons of the anti-racist and anti-imperialist historical scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century for writing beyond the U.S. nation state. In that Transatlantic Nadir, Kelley writes, Black historians understood that Jim Crow emerged in the “post”-slavery Reconstruction South as “the expanding empires of Europe and the United States (at least momentarily) prompted the creation of new genealogies of nations, new myths about the inevitability of nations, their ‘temperament,’ their destinies.”

The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. This is Caste’s fatal flaw. It fails to witness, recognize, and be in solidarity with Blackness beyond the American border.

The Black Historical Tradition, an indispensable part of the Black Radical Tradition, resists Empire. The Black Historical Tradition is clear—there is no Black freedom under Empire. In spite of this tradition, Caste’s comparative world-historical analysis maps anti-Blackness as the sole province of the United States, without recognizing that it is, as Du Bois first described in his essay “The Color Line Belts the World” (1906), “but a local phase of a world problem.” If Caste resists racist historiography, then its downfall is that it does not resist nationalist and imperialist historiography. The Black Radical Historical Tradition is clear—there is no anti-racism without anti-imperialism.

If Germany, the world’s exemplar of historic reckoning and reconciliation, cannot be compelled to repent and pay reparations for its Herero and Nama Holocaust then what hope is there that the United States will be compelled to repent and pay reparations for African American slavery?

The question for Black people the world over isCan we unbind ourselves and our historic claims for reparations from the nation states that cage us? Can we go to the edge, to where our sisters and brothers stand, and imagine the end of world-historic lynch-time? Can we imagine the end of this world?

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As I write, generations are once again dying under the wheels of the twenty-first century. Shocked and ashamed at the horrifying, ever-mounting, ever-rotting trails of flesh and bone left on the track, we turn and look away. We run away from that which mangles us, from that which wounds us. We run away from each other. We run away from ourselves.

Perhaps “post”-Apartheid Modernity’s train—mechanized by the accelerating anti-Black forces of white supremacy, jingoistic nationalisms, late capitalism, neoliberal imperialism, hetero-patriarchy, and ableism—has left us so mangled that we fail to recognize each other and ourselves.

Black suffering continues to suture the wounds of the world. Indeed, Black suffering produces the world.

How do we end this world? Contrary to Wilkerson’s thesis, ending a world produced by Black suffering cannot take place within a moral historical “progression.” It will require a rupture of world-historic lynch-time.

How do we end this world? We must accurately name that which wounds us.

How do we end lynch-time? It is a terrifying question with no easy answer. Rupturing lynch-time requires that we name that which wounds us. To name is to witness. In this surveying—in this witnessing of the world’s wounds—the costs of refusal and obfuscation are too high. We mistake the map for the territory, the skin for the bones, and the bones for the skin.


Author’s NoteI am grateful to art historian Dr. Zamansele Nsele’s theorization of the train as the icon of imperial and settler colonial modernity in her 2020 essay “Post-Apartheid Nostalgia and Its Images of Common Sense.” Here, she originally places Cornel West and Dambudzo Marechera in conversation.

Source: Who Is Afraid of Race? | Boston Review

How a Legacy of Organizing Among Domestic Workers Helped Turn Georgia Blue – Mother Jones

How a Legacy of Organizing Among Domestic Workers Helped Turn Georgia Blue

“Georgia is about to save our whole democracy, so we’re all in.”

“You ever been here?” Yterenickia Bell asks me as we wait for the door to the Cascade Skating Rink to be unlocked. “It’s historic,” she says, ushering me out of the December rain and into the fluorescent-lit roller-skating spot in west Atlanta’s Adamsville neighborhood. “People have been gathering here for years.”

The rink is awaiting the night crowd. Video games sit silent in a corner. The snack bar is dark except for a flashing neon sign. But it’s not empty: a handful of people in orange shirts and masks are chatting at the other end of the rink before braving the rain to get out the vote for Senate candidate Raphael Warnock. Bell is the GOTV director for Care in Action, an advocacy group whose members are mostly nannies, housecleaners, and home health workers. “We operate out of here because we have everyday folks that are workers that may have lost their jobs due to COVID, and a saturation of them live in this area,” she says. “It’s the community helping the community.”

I’d come to Georgia to see Democrats’ ground game ahead of the Senate runoff, and in particular, to understand the role that this group of domestic workers, most of whom are women of color, has had in turning the state purple. Right now the rink is the center of the action. From here, Bell has been organizing 250 door-knockers a day to get the word out about the race and voting logistics. “It takes people who are committed to this work, who know what’s at stake,” she says. “They have to get up every morning at eight o’clock to be here by nine for training and then go out to their specific turf and knock on people’s doors.” In the two months leading up to the runoff, Care in Action reached out to 5.85 million voters, either by phone, by mail, or in person, including more than 1 million door knocks. “Georgia is about to save our whole democracy, so we’re all in,” Bell says.

Those efforts paid off. Just after Georgians elected a Democrat for president for the first time in 30 years, they went on to pick Warnock, a Black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish millennial, to represent them in the Senate, clinching Democrats’ narrow control of the chamber. In majority-Black precincts, early numbers indicated that the turnout in the January runoff would surpass that of November 2020 and reach a level not seen since Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Republican turnout was also strong, but not enough to turn back a second blue wave in so many months.

Though Care in Action is not affiliated with Stacey Abrams, who has been widely credited with turning Georgia blue, its work is a direct extension of Democrats’ decade-long effort to reshape the state by organizing voters of color. “What it takes to win in Georgia is a multiracial coalition,” says Rep. Nikema Williams, who served as Care in Action’s deputy director in 2018 and now holds the US House seat formerly held by Rep. John Lewis. And just as that coalition did not come together overnight, it also drew upon generations of organizing by Black domestic workers. “I do believe that investment in long-term, community-based organizing and power building does pay off,” says Ai-jen Poo, Care in Action’s senior adviser and the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Throughout our history, Black domestic workers have organized and have really asserted their dignity through organizing.”

Atlanta is the birthplace of that movement. The first recorded domestic workers’ strike was in 1881, when Black women in Atlanta left their posts to demand better wages. Dorothy Lee Bolden helped create the National Domestic Workers Union of America (a precursor to NDWA) in the city in 1968. It was less a formal union than an education and advocacy effort, which Bolden led for nearly three decades. She built an infrastructure that took the union directly to the people it represented, using public buses to hold informal meetings and recruit domestic workers during their daily commute. There were two requirements to join the union: Members had to be domestic workers, and they had to vote.

The NDWU eventually spread to 10 more states, won workers’ compensation and Social Security benefits, and helped raise the minimum wage in Atlanta by 33 percent. Bolden also had an influential voice that affected national policy; her expertise was sought by presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

The movement fizzled a bit in the ’80s as union power declined but it was revived a decade ago when Poo began organizing home care workers to push for greater labor protections. After notching win after win, she realized that the women she’d helped bring together were an untapped voting bloc. In 2018, she launched Care in Action to get out the vote for women candidates who stand by policies that domestic workers could benefit from. That same year, Abrams ran for governor of Georgia while pushing an unabashedly progressive agenda that included expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring quality public education. Abrams received Care in Action’s first endorsement, and the group mobilized 300 domestic workers to canvass for her.

People who worked on that campaign recall there was a beautiful synergy in domestic workers rallying for the possibility of Abrams becoming Georgia’s first Black governor. “We were very intentional about running a program that reached out to people that have been overlooked in the political process for way too long,” Williams recalls. “Our unique skill set was having our membership actually do the canvassing. It really changed the game for us and the way we were able to expand the electorate.”

Though Abrams lost her bid, thanks in no small part to the voter suppression tactics of her opponent, then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Poo and others felt they had bottled lightning. Indeed, in terms of people pounding the pavement, Care in Action was the largest independently funded grassroots effort in Georgia during the 2018 election cycle. Since then, it has expanded into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan. It started small, focusing on a few state candidates and the presidential election, with an eye toward expanding its operations in Georgia.

Despite the challenges presented by a pandemic that forced a rethink of its campaign outreach and infrastructure, Care in Action was able to carry the energy from 2018 through two more hard-fought races in 2020. “I think that [Abrams’ loss] was the momentum that we needed, that propelled us to be ready and to be able to launch for the Senate runoff as well as engage in a general,” Bell says. “We were able to essentially flip our state blue.”

The stakes are clear to Melanie Jackson, a domestic worker in the Atlanta area who tells me that canvassing with Care in Action made her feel like she was making a difference in a state whose elections have deep repercussions for the rest of the country. She recalls a recent conversation she’d had with a Black man in his 30s who told her he wasn’t planning to vote—he just didn’t feel like there was any point. She says she stared at him, incredulous. “You’re gonna miss the first opportunity to send a Black man from Georgia to the United States Senate?” she asked him.

He responded, “Sister, just because you said that, I’m going to go vote for the guy.”

“We locked eyes,” she told me. “I know that he went and followed through on that, and he probably thought about me as he was pressing those buttons. No doubt in my mind.”

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn’t fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

Source: How a Legacy of Organizing Among Domestic Workers Helped Turn Georgia Blue – Mother Jones

FHTE Reparationist Quick Guided (Volume 1 Issue 2)_.pdf – Google Drive

FHTE Reparationist Quick Guide
January 2021 – Volume 1 Issue 2

About Us
The FHTE (From Here to Equality) Reparationist Quick Guide Response was
initially established in October of 2020, as the ADOS Reparationist Quick Guide©, and is designed to be a civic engagement resource for anyone. It allows supporters to take an ownership share in our online social justice advocacy. Authorship is being encouraged from every sector and community of citizens concerned with the restorative justice of black American Descendants of Slavery (i.e., ADOS) and the closing of the black-white racial
wealth gap. The book From here to equality: Reparations for black Americans in the twentieth century (Darity & Mullen, 2020) will serve as our base source for the volumes’ invited authors. Each issue will contain four topics and five quick points from four featured authors who offer their responses to commonly held positions in opposition to reparations or frequently asked questions (FAQ) about African American reparations.

The inherited disadvantages of slavery and the inability to transfer wealth to ADOS descendants have been a significant contributor to the bottom class positionality of this ethnic group. This series is published to encourage study and dialogue. It is an instrument for personal empowerment. The guide creates a space for the civic engagement participation of Reparationist in national coalition-building, including petitioning for significant revision (or
replacement) of the bill H.R. 40 (S.1083) currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress.

 

Source: FHTE Reparationist Quick Guided (Volume 1 Issue 2)_.pdf – Google Drive

An FBI Agent Went Undercover to Study White Supremacists. He’s Now Speaking Out About Racist Police. – Mother Jones

One Capitol Police officer was caught taking a selfie with a member of the white supremacist mob that overtook the US Capitol last week. A second officer has been suspended for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and directing insurrectionists around the building rather than handcuffing them. The storming of the Capitol has revived concerns about the ties between police and white supremacists, in part because officers arrested far more Black Lives Matter protesters this summer than they did Trump supporters who broke into the legislative building with weapons, at least one Confederate flag, and bundles of zip ties.

It wasn’t just on-duty cops who raised eyebrows: Off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the mob itself, with some flashing their badges and identification cards as they rushed through the doors, according to an on-duty DC Metro Police officer who saw them. “If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms,” the officer wrote later on Facebook, according to Politico.

Police departments around the country are now investigating officers who are suspected of attending the rally in DC, or were caught posting racist messages on social media. Days after the attack, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced a bill that would require a commission to examine whether Capitol Police officers have white supremacist ties.

For some experts, these investigations are far too little, too late: Police departments and federal agencies have long understood that certain cops are connected to racist groups, and have largely looked the other way. “We’ve known for decades that there are racial disparities in every step of the criminal justice process, from who gets stopped to who gets arrested to who police use force against to how they get charged,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now studies white supremacist infiltration of police departments as a fellow at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank. “It’s treated as implicit bias or structural bias without an acknowledgment that there’s a lot of explicit bias driving these disparities.”

As an FBI agent in the 1990s, German went undercover with white supremacist and militia groups to thwart their bomb plots. At the time, the Justice Department warned him to be careful about sharing details of his investigations with cops, because some of them had ties to white supremacist groups themselves. Even so, in the decades since then, he says the FBI has not prioritized investigating those police officers and getting them off the streets, allowing them to continue their jobs. I caught up with German this week to ask how law enforcement agencies have fallen short in identifying and firing racist officers, and what they should be doing now, in the wake of the Capitol siege, to root them out.

Do we know roughly how many cops have ties to white supremacists? 

Unfortunately we don’t have a sense of the scope of the problem because no entity has made it their mission to identify the scope. But the FBI regularly warns its agents who are investigating white supremacists and far-right militants that the subjects of those investigations will often have active links to law enforcement, and that they need to alter their methodology to protect the integrity of their investigations. Those were warnings I received in the 1990s when I worked these cases, and they appear in published leaked FBI materials, including the 2015 counterterrorism policy guide.

When you say FBI agents alter their methodologies, do you mean they’re not supposed to collaborate as much with police while investigating white supremacists? 

Exactly. The counterterrorism policy guide recommends that the FBI put the subjects of these investigations on a watch list with what’s called the silent-hit function; if a police officer pulls over the subject of your investigation, a silent-hit function would not tell the officer that he’s interacting with someone who’s the subject of a terrorism investigation.

If the FBI knows this is a problem of such significance that it has to alter its methodologies of investigating cases, I would argue it also has to have a strategy to protect the public from these white supremacists and far-right militants who carry a badge. The fact that they don’t even document who these police officers are shows an inexcusable lack of attention to their mission to enforce the civil rights laws of this country as well as the counterterrorism laws.

In 2006, the FBI warned that for decades, white supremacist groups had been attempting to “recruit” police officers. Can you talk about the history of this?

It’s important to understand that the United States was founded as a white supremacist nation, so our laws enforced white supremacy, so those who were sworn to enforce the law were enforcing white supremacy. After slavery ended, you had Jim Crow. After the civil rights era, you still had sundown towns, where the police enforced unwritten rules about who could stay in town past dark. To imagine there was somehow a miraculous event that cured the police of that problem is foolish.

The most egregious are examples where police officers were actually members of white supremacist groups and would go to public events representing themselves as police officers. And their membership was known to law enforcement for years and unaddressed, and it was only when the public learned about it that the police department took action.

We do so little examination of police violence in this country, but we know it disproportionately targets people who are Black or brown. How much of that is driven from actual white supremacist ideology rather than isolated incidents that happen on the job is something the Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate.

What kind of recruitment techniques do white supremacist groups use with police?

Having spent time as an FBI undercover agent, I think the term [“recruit”] doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. It’s not so much that this group will put a pamphlet together and make a recruiting pitch and approach officers. In many cases, these are people who grew up affiliating with white supremacists. One guy went to work as a prison guard, one guy went to work in factories, and the other guy went to work as a police officer. And they are just carrying on attitudes and associating with the same people they associated with when they weren’t a police officer.

Are there any police departments that have tried themselves to root out racist cops, and any that did a good job?

The departments tend to be reactive to public outrage. Part of the problem is that most law enforcement agencies don’t have written policies specifically addressing the issue. So when the public identifies somebody who’s operating in league with a white supremacist group or far-right militant group, they end up disciplining them under broad prohibitions against engaging in public conduct detrimental to the public interest, or similarly worded policies.

Sometimes this doesn’t stand up to the due process scrutiny that’s designed to protect innocent officers from being treating unfairly. So they end up getting their jobs back after they’re fired.

What I argue is that even where the conduct is not sufficient to terminate that officer, the police department still has an obligation to mitigate the threat they pose to the community. There are plenty of jobs in police departments that don’t regularly interact with the public. Or perhaps some extra level of supervision of that officer would be warranted.

What’s the main legal barrier to firing them? Police union contracts?

Right. Or just the lack of policy, or disparate treatment, where other officers known to engage in racist behavior weren’t fired in the past, so it’s unfair to fire this officer. Often, if the police department knew about your involvement with this white supremacist group for five years but is now trying to fire you, you can argue: “I’m not being fired because of the conduct, because the department knew about the conduct; I’m being fired because the public demanded it, and that’s not appropriate.” That’s the problem with the way we have just turned a blind eye to this problem for so many decades.

Is there anything else that government can do to address this problem?

What we need is to empower prosecutors and defense attorneys. When these [white supremacist] officers are identified by the agency or by the public, that information should be provided to prosecutors and they [the officer] should be put on no-call lists or Brady lists. Today these no-call lists are lists of officers who are known to have previously engaged in some kind of dishonest conduct that a defense attorney could use to impeach their testimony. My argument is that racist behavior is one of those categories that should be available to the defense attorney. [This can] force those agents off the street.

In an ideal world, what do you think the Justice Department or FBI’s role would be in rooting out white supremacist police officers?

What I would recommend is for the Justice Department to implement a national strategy to identify these officers, document the scope of the threat, and design programs to mitigate it. It’s a matter of priorities. If the FBI heard through the grapevine that a police officer was affiliating himself with Al Qaeda or ISIS, we can be confident the FBI would react quickly. They should act just as quickly when the police officer is associated with white supremacist and far-right militant groups.

Some people have expressed the idea that we need to create a list of designated domestic terrorist groups, but that’s a silly approach because these groups change their names regularly. In other words, writing a list of groups that are banned is not going to help. Because officers can look at the list and say, “Okay, I won’t join this group, but I’ll join this other group. Or I’ll be part of a group that previously called itself the KKK but now calls itself something else.” But it’s the same people engaged in the same racist conduct. It takes an understanding of how these groups actually organize before you can write a policy.

The officers and agents within these federal, state, and local law enforcement departments know who the racists are among them. What we need to do is make sure officers who see racist misconduct or far-right militancy within law enforcement are protected when they report it. We need to strengthen whistleblower protection laws.

You wrote in a recent report about a man in Anniston, Alabama, who applied to be a police officer, and listed on his application that he was part of the League of the South, a white supremacist secessionist group. He was hired anyway. Are cops’ racist ties often that obvious? 

Yes, often it is that obvious. So it’s not that they can’t be seen, it’s that nobody is looking for them.

Update (January 15): The Capitol Police officer who wore a MAGA hat claims he put on the cap as part of a plan to save some of his colleagues who were in danger, according to a new Wall Street Journal report.

Source: An FBI Agent Went Undercover to Study White Supremacists. He’s Now Speaking Out About Racist Police. – Mother Jones

We Are Not Slaves — An Author’s Response – AAIHS

During a symposium on We Are Not SlavesErnest McMillen, a co-founder of SNCC, Dallas, and an activist for the incarcerated, observed that, “The prison system is a microcosm, a concentration, of what is actually in the whole of society. This idea of going from the universal to the particular, and back to the particular and to the universal, is very important for people to see,” McMillen continued, “because the very forces [of oppression] that are at work concentrated in the prison system, are the same as those at work in our everyday society—from economic exploitation, to racism, to sexism, to untold injustices that we see every day. They are perfected first in the prison system.” This incredibly thoughtful observation is precisely why I wrote We Are Not Slaves.

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Robert T. Chase’s We Are Not Slaves. On Friday, January 15, at 12noon EST, Chase will be in conversation with Talitha LeFlouria about this book. The event is free and open to all. Click here to register for the event. During a symposium on We Are

 

“Hicks’ poignant conclusion reminds us that the ravages of COVID-19 leave today’s incarcerated peoples especially vulnerable. In a recent discussion with Kinetik Justice, the co-founder of the Free Alabama Movement, he told me that he had been placed in permanent solitary because of his organizing, but was recently relocated. In his words, “it’s obvious that several people in this neighborhood have been exposed to the virus and it’s very probable that the Administration knew that prior to moving me. Could it be coincidence? Lol. Well, it could be.” 2 This twenty-first century punitive cell displacement near a bio-virus harkens back to the disciplinary strategy I uncovered of purposeful cell displacement to generate racial and sexual violence. The disciplinary tools may change, but the strategies remain similar. Hughett’s final point is where I also concluded We Are Not Slaves, ending carceral violence “will require abolishing the prison.” That political project requires resistance against both the prison particular and the universal carceral apparatus and with a broad coalition of people inside and outside of prison.”

Source: We Are Not Slaves — An Author’s Response – AAIHS

Under CARES Act, These Moms Should Be Home. They Remain in COVID-Filled Prisons.

When COVID entered the federal medical prison in Carswell, Texas, it ballooned within weeks — of the 1,288 people tested, 504 were positive. In one housing unit of 300 women, only 26 women tested negative, including 56-year-old Sandra Shoulders.

Shoulders has severe diabetes, respiratory problems, and, since entering prison in 2015, chronic kidney disease, leaving her at only 30 percent kidney function. All of these make her more vulnerable to becoming debilitated, if not dying, from COVID.

Meanwhile, the prison’s practices discourage people from getting tested for COVID. “Even when inmates feel ill now, they are so scared of those conditions to speak up,” Shoulders explained. She described how those who tested positive were treated: “You are held in a room, and expected to wear the same set of clothes for 21+ days, without laundry facilities. Food is dropped by the door and physically kicked into the room by the guards.”

After Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency responsible for federal prisons, expanding the criteria under which to release people to home confinement to stem the spread of COVID. The expanded criteria prioritize people whose age or health makes them vulnerable to COVID, as well as those in low- and medium-security prisons, people whose reentry plans show that they are less likely to contract COVID if not incarcerated, and people with low risk-assessment (or PATTERN) scores.

In August, a prison case manager said that Shoulders qualified for home confinement on September 25. Elated, she began making plans to join her godsister in Chicago. She also planned to reconnect with her three children and her 16 grandchildren, some of whom she only knew through photos and video calls.

Sandra Shoulders before incarceration.

Three weeks later, prison administrators told Shoulders that the BOP’s Central Office had denied her release. She was not told why. “I had to call my family and give them this heartbreaking news,” Shoulders told Truthout. The news not only left her reeling, but sent Shoulders — who has bipolar disorder, an anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder — into what she calls a “serious mental health crisis and meltdown.”

Full article and the series.

Source: Under CARES Act, These Moms Should Be Home. They Remain in COVID-Filled Prisons. 

Why African-Americans may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19

African-Americans are more likely to die from the disease than white Americans

two people wearing masks
African-Americans have increased exposure to COVID-19, in part, because they disproportionately have jobs in the service sector. Here, a man is shown with his ride share driver at a train station in Joliet, Ill., on April 6.CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP PHOTO

COVID-19 was called the great equalizer. Nobody was immune; anybody could succumb. But the virus’ spread across the United States is exposing racial fault lines, with early data showing that African-Americans are more likely to die from the disease than white Americans.

The data are still piecemeal, with only some states and counties breaking down COVID-19 cases and outcomes by race. But even without nationwide data, the numbers are stark. Where race data are known — for only 3,300 of 13,000 COVID-19 deaths — African-Americans account for 42 percent of the deaths, the Associated Press reported April 9. Those data also suggest the disparity could be highest in the South. For instance, in both Louisiana and Mississippi, African-Americans account for over 65 percent of known COVID-19 deaths.

Other regions are seeing disparities as well. For instance, in Illinois, where the bulk of infections are in the Chicago area, 28 percent of the 16,422 confirmed cases as of April 9 were African-Americans, but African-Americans accounted for nearly 43 percent of the state’s 528 deaths.

Other data find similar trends. A study published online April 8 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report looked at hospitalizations for COVID-19 across 14 states from March 1 to 30. Race data, which were available for 580 of 1,482 patients, revealed that African-Americans accounted for 33 percent of the hospitalizations, but only 18 percent of the total population surveyed.

Here are three reasons why African-Americans may be especially vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

1. African-Americans are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19.

SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is highly contagious, even before symptoms appear (SN: 3/13/20). So to curb the virus’ spread and limit person-to-person transmission, states have been issuing stay-at-home orders. But many individuals are considered part of the critical workforce by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and must continue to work. That includes caregivers, cashiers, sanitation workers, farm workers and public transit employees, jobs often filled by African-Americans.

For instance, almost 30 percent of employed African-Americans work in the education and health services industry and 10 percent in retail, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. African-Americans are less likely than employed people in general to work in professional and business services — the sorts of jobs more amenable to telecommuting.

Additionally, a disproportionately high percentage of African-Americans may live in places that could increase their risk of exposure. Census data from January 2020 show that only 44 percent of African-Americans own their own home compared with almost 74 percent of white people. Consider a family living in a crowded inner-city apartment, says epidemiologist Martina Anto-Ocrah of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. “Can you possibly take an elevator alone? No.”

African-Americans’ risk of higher exposure to COVID-19 has historical roots — including legal segregation in schools and housing, discrimination in the labor market and redlining, the practice of denying home loans to those living in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Those forces have contributed to a persistent racial wealth gap, with African-Americans continuing to struggle to move into neighborhoods with the sorts of socioeconomic opportunities that allow white families to better avoid exposure to COVID-19.

“All the ingredients are in place for there to be a sharp racial and class inequality to this [pandemic],” says Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard University.

2. African-Americans have a higher incidence of underlying health conditions.

Among those at highest risk of getting severely ill with COVID-19 are patients with other serious health problems, such as hypertension, diabetes and heart disease (SN: 3/20/20). Over 40 percent of African-Americans have high blood pressure, among the highest rates in the world, according to the American Heart Association. By comparison, about a third of white Americans have high blood pressure. Similarly, African-Americans tend to have higher rates of diabetes.

Part of that heightened risk has to do with African-Americans’ disproportionate exposure to air pollution. Such pollution has been linked to chronic health problems, including asthma, obesity and cardiovascular disease (SN: 9/19/17). In an April 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sampson and fellow Harvard sociologist Robert Manduca showed that poor African-American neighborhoods have higher levels of lead, air pollution and violence than poor white neighborhoods (SN: 4/12/19).

 

 

 

Researchers are still sorting out how neighborhood stressors contribute to poor health. But even if the causes aren’t always clear, research suggests that helping people move to better neighborhoods can improve health. For instance, a 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine showed that for African-American adults, moving out of racially segregated neighborhoods was linked to a drop in blood pressure (SN: 5/15/17).

3. African-Americans have less access to medical care and often distrust caregivers.

Inequities in access to health care, including inadequate health insurance, discrimination fears and distance from clinics and hospitals, make it harder for many African-Americans to access the sort of preventive care that keeps chronic diseases in check.

According to a December 2019 report from The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York City and Washington, D.C., African-Americans are still more likely to be uninsured than white Americans. And African-Americans who are insured spend a greater fraction of their income on premiums and out-of-pocket costs, about 20 percent, than the average American, who spends about 11 percent.

Census data show that about 20 percent of African-Americans live in poverty compared with 10 percent of white Americans. As a result, African-Americans have been disproportionately hurt by some states’ decisions not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Expanded Medicaid has been linked to a reduced likelihood of deaths from cardiovascular disease (SN: 6/7/19) and a reduction in the racial health gap between white and black babies (SN: 4/23/19).

Lack of preventive care means that African-Americans are more likely than other racial groups in the United States to be hospitalized or rehospitalized for asthma, diabetes, heart failure and postsurgery complications, researchers reported in 2016 in the Annual Review of Public Health.

African-Americans can also face hidden biases to care. For instance, an algorithm used to determine which patients should receive access to certain health care programs inadvertently prioritized white patients over African-American patients (SN: 10/24/19), researchers reported in October 2019 in Science. That disparity arose because the algorithm used health care spending as a proxy for need, but African-Americans often spend less on health care because they are less likely to go to a doctor. In part that may be because African-Americans have a long-standing distrust of the medical establishment due to events such as the Tuskegee experiment (SN: 3/1/75), in which hundreds of African-American men with syphilis were denied treatment for decades.

“These long-standing structural forms of discrimination that African-Americans have faced in the [United States] are manifesting in what we’re seeing with COVID right now,” says epidemiologist Kiarri Kershaw of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Even so, more can be done to identify communities that might be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and improve their odds of coping with the pandemic, Sampson says. For example, “look at a map of incarceration, lead risk and violence in Chicago [and] you’ll basically see a map of COVID deaths,” he says. Those kinds of proxies could provide a road map to identifying at-risk communities and targeting resources to them, such as greater access to COVID-19 testing, distribution of masks and mobile clinics to provide care.

Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap II Dr. William “Sandy”Darity

Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap

Dr. William Darity‘s congressional testimony lays a path to fix historic inequity that produces unequal outcomes for blacks

Dr. Willliam “Sandy” Darity, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.

The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself.

The case for black reparations must be anchored on three phases of grievous injustice inflicted upon enslaved blacks and their descendants. First is the atrocity of slavery itself. Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era). Third are the legacy effects of slavery and Jim Crow, compounded by ongoing racism manifest in persistent health disparities, labor market discrimination, mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), black voter suppression, and the general deprivation of equal well-being with all Americans. Therefore, it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment — both slavery and post-slavery, both Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow — on black descendants of American slavery. It is precisely that unique community that should be the recipients of reparations: black American descendants of persons enslaved in the U.S.

Second are the atrocities exercised during the nearly century-long period of legal segregation in the U.S. (the “Jim Crow” era).

In a 2003 article written with Dania Frank Francis, and, more recently, in work written with Kirsten Mullen, we have proposed two criteria for eligibility for black reparations. First, an individual must demonstrate that they have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. Second, an individual must demonstrate that for at least 10 years prior to the onset of the reparations program or the formation of the study commission, whichever comes first, they self-identified as black, Negro or African-American. The first criterion will require genealogical documentation — but absolutely no phenotype, ideology or DNA tests. The second criterion will require presentation of a suitable state or federal legal document that the person declared themselves to be black.

iStockphoto.

… it is a misnomer to refer to “slavery reparations,” since black reparations must encompass the harms imposed throughout American history to the present moment

I also recommend, like the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, the commission on reparations proposals commission should be appointed exclusively by the Congress. The commission appointees should be experts in American history, Constitutional law, economics (including stratification economics), political science and sociology. These appointees must have expert knowledge on the history of slavery and Jim Crow, employment discrimination, wealth inequality, health disparities, unequal educational opportunities, criminal justice and mass incarceration, media, political participation and exclusion, and housing inequities. The commission also should include appointees with detailed knowledge about the design and administration of prior reparations programs as guidelines for structuring a comprehensive reparations program for native black Americans.

Where do we go from here?

What would it take to bridge the black-white wealth gap?
A Q & A with Duke University economist William ‘Sandy’ Darity, who has some radical—yet doable—ideas
mlk50.com
Reparations well-intentioned, but insufficient for the debt owed
City of Memphis gives $50,000 each to the 14 living black sanitation workers from the 1968 strike
mlk50.com
The Loebs : Exploited black labor and inherited white wealth
Penny-pinching Loeb ancestors kept wages flat for 25 years as black laundresses did “miserable” work
mlk50.com

Source: Overdue reparations is the key to closing the racial wealth gap

Jim Crow South’s lynching of blacks and Christianity: The terror inflicted by whites was considered a religious ritual.

The cliché is that Americans have a short memory, but since Saturday, a number of us have been arguing over medieval religious wars and whether they have any lessons for today’s violence in the Middle East.

For those still unaware, this debate comes after President Obama’s comments at the annual National Prayer Breakfast, where—after condemning Islamic radical group ISIS as a “death cult”—he offered a moderating thought. “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ … So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

It’s a straightforward point—“no faith has a particular monopoly on religious arrogance”—that’s become a partisan flashpoint, as conservatives harangue the president for “equating” crusading Christians to Islamic radicals, accuse him of anti-Christian beliefs, and wonder why he would mention a centuries-old conflict, even if it has some analogies to the present day.

What we have missed in the argument over the Crusades, however, is Obama’s mention of slavery and Jim Crow. At the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates puts his focus on religious justifications for American bondage, and it’s worth doing the same for its post-bellum successor. And since we’re thinking in terms of religious violence, our eyes should turn toward the most brutal spectacle of Jim Crow’s reign, the lynching.

For most of the century between the two Reconstructions, the bulk of the white South condoned and sanctioned terrorist violence against black Americans. In a new report, the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative documents nearly 4,000 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—between 1877 and 1950, which the group notes is “at least 700 more lynchings in these states than previously reported.”

For his victims, “Judge Lynch”—journalist Ida B. Wells’ name for the lynch mob—was capricious, merciless, and barbaric. C.J. Miller, falsely accused of killing two teenaged white sisters in western Kentucky, was “dragged through the streets to a crude platform of old barrel staves and other kindling,” writes historian Philip Dray in At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. His assailants hanged him from a telephone pole, and while “the first fall broke his neck … the body was repeatedly raised and lowered while the crowd peppered it with small-arms fire.” For two hours his corpse hung above the street, during which he was photographed and mutilated by onlookers. Finally, he was cut down and burned.

More savage was the lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child, killed for protesting her husband’s murder. “[B]efore a crowd that included women and children,” writes Dray, “Mary was stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground, gave a cry, and was stomped to death.”

These lynchings weren’t just vigilante punishments or, as the Equal Justice Initiative notes, “celebratory acts of racial control and domination.” They were rituals. And specifically, they were rituals of Southern evangelicalism and its then-dogma of purity, literalism, and white supremacy. “Christianity was the primary lens through which most southerners conceptualized and made sense of suffering and death of any sort,” writes historian Amy Louise Wood in Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890–1940. “It would be inconceivable that they could inflict pain and torment on the bodies of black men without imagining that violence as a religious act, laden with Christian symbolism and significance.”

The God of the white South demanded purity—embodied by the white woman. White southerners would build the barrier with segregation. But when it was breached, lynching was the way they would mend the fence and affirm their freedom from the moral contamination, represented by blacks and black men in particular. (Although, not limited to them. Leo Frank, lynched in 1915, was Jewish.) The perceived breach was frequently sexual, defined by the myth of the black rapist, a “demon” and “beast” who set out to defile the Christian purity of white womanhood. In his narrative of the lynching of Henry Smith—killed for the alleged rape and murder of 3-year-old Myrtle Vance—writer P.L. James recounted how the energy of an entire city and country was turned toward the apprehension of the demon who had devastated a home and polluted an innocent life.”

James wasn’t alone. Many other defenders of lynching understood their acts as a Christian duty, consecrated as God’s will against racial transgression. “After Smith’s lynching,” Wood notes, “another defender wrote, ‘It was nothing but the vengeance of an outraged God, meted out to him, through the instrumentality of the people that caused the cremation.’ ” As UNC–Chapel Hill Professor Emeritus Donald G. Mathews writes in the Journal of Southern Religion, “Religion permeated communal lynching because the act occurred within the context of a sacred order designed to sustain holiness.” The “sacred order” was white supremacy and the “holiness” was white virtue.

I should emphasize that blacks of the era understood lynching as rooted in the Christian practice of white southerners. “It is exceedingly doubtful if lynching could possibly exist under any other religion than Christianity,” wrote NAACP leader Walter White in 1929, “No person who is familiar with the Bible-beating, acrobatic, fanatical preachers of hell-fire in the South, and who has seen the orgies of emotion created by them, can doubt for a moment that dangerous passions are released which contribute to emotional instability and play a part in lynching.” And while some church leaders condemned the practice as contrary to the Gospel of Christ—“Religion and lynching; Christianity and crushing, burning and blessing, savagery and national sanity cannot go together in this country,” declared one 1904 editorial—the overwhelming consent of the white South confirmed White’s view.

The only Southern Christianity united in its opposition to lynching was that of black Americans, who tried to recontextualize the onslaught as a kind of crucifixion and its victims as martyrs, flipping the script and making blacks the true inheritors of Christian salvation and redemption. It’s that last point which should highlight how none of this was intrinsic to Christianity: It was a question of power, and of the need of the powerful to sanctify their actions.

Still, we can’t deny that lynching—in all of its grotesque brutality—was an act of religious significance justified by the Christianity of the day. It was also political: an act of terror and social control, and the province of private citizens, public officials, and powerful lawmakers. Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina defended lynching on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and President Woodrow Wilson applauded a film that celebrated Judge Lynch and his disciples.

Which is all to say that President Obama was right. The vastly different environments of pre–civil rights America and the modern-day Middle East belies the substantive similarities between the fairly recent religious violence of our white supremacist forebears and that of our contemporary enemies. And the present divide between moderate Muslims and their fanatical opponents has an analogue in our past divide between northern Christianity and its southern counterpart.

This isn’t relativism as much as it’s a clear-eyed view of our common vulnerability, of the truth that the seeds of violence and autocracy can sprout anywhere, and of the fact that our present position on the moral high ground isn’t evidence of some intrinsic superiority.

Source: Jim Crow South’s lynching of blacks and Christianity: The terror inflicted by whites was considered a religious ritual.