Saturday, August 24, 2019

something old from Steven Wedgeworth on ... Calhoun arguing that race specific slavery was preferable to unregulated capitalism for the status of lower class whites

One of the weirder quirks of having spent so many years at what used to be Mars Hill Church was coming across people who thought that the Confederacy was in some sense more in the right than the Union in the war between the states.  I didn't come across anyone within Mars Hill Church who went so far as to talk about the War or Northern Aggression, which I regard as a dubious claim ... but if we're going to call the American Civil War something besides that I'm kind of partial to Adolph Reed Jr.'s reference to the slaver-owners rebellion.

With half my lineage being Native American, I'd hear some stuff from that side of my family about how the Union was fighting to preserve the Union, not end slavery, so it would not be entirely accurate to call them the "good guys" on the issue of race and slavery.  Conversely, the Confederacy was fighting for the right to own blacks as property so they certainly weren't the "good guys", either!  The white racists in the North fought the white racists in the South on the issue of owning black people as property and after that happened everyone kind of agreed it was time to go back to killing Indians and stealing their land.

Because I'm basically in that theological camp people describe as Reformed I sometimes still get to hear and read claims that the Emancipation Proclamation was a publicity stunt that had no real impact.  It did ... but the kinds of white guys who parrot the aforementioned statement are probably not thinking abut the Cherokee voluntarily ending their practice of slavery in response to the Proclamation.

So ... over the years I'd read things that would sometimes stick with me, Steven Wedgeworth had something about his going from being an unreconstructed Southerner to dropping notions that the Confederacy and the Rebel Flag represented positive things.
The real truth to the “heritage” thing is that the Rebel Flag, along with most Confederate iconography, was either done away with or dramatically reinterpreted after the Civil War. The United Daughters of the Confederacy went about the country building monuments and telling the Lost Cause narrative which strangely allowed Rebels to become symbols of American patriotism and even national unity in the face of foreign enemies. There was no emphasis on an agrarian slave empire. It was all about “freedom,” interpreted along nationalistic lines. Soon enough this could be merged with a general anti-Marxist political philosophy, and by the time you get to the Civil Rights era, the Confederate imagery is firmly and decidedly used to defend “the American way of life” against the forces of international communism. If you read any pro-segregation material from the 1950s and 60s, you’ll see an identification of Black rights and Marxism. This wasn’t all false, of course. Marxism was a real thing. But this does show how the “heritage” had mutated into something completely new. The true Old South was about half “American founding” and half a criticism and supposed-perfection of the American project. The rebels of the 20th century, on the other hand, had largely made their peace with “the new South.” Almost all of them were Democrats, and this is not simply an anachronistic point. No, the Southern Democrats were mostly pro-labor and populist, critics of big business and the like, and they were not actually moral activists of the right-wing Christian sort, though a good many of them were Teetotalers. They were not the old Confederate South, and they were not the partially neo-Confederates that one can find among right-wing Christians today. The heritage snaked and turned and became something new, as it has done again and again since then.

I would ask people to be honest with themselves. Flag or no flag, what is Southern heritage? It’s not all bad. Not at all. But a lot of it is. A lot of it is really bad. And a lot of the good stuff is not an intentional product of the old Southern architects (no Southern “worldview”) but instead an organic outgrowing of people just being people over time. The best of Southern literature? It comes after the Civil War and has always been self-critical of Southern culture and identity. The best of Southern music? It was all written by Black folks or poor Whites struggling with the challenges of a depressed Southern economy. The best of Southern food? Well, who can say which parts of that are Black or White? I sure can’t.

S.W. gets at something that I've been thinking about in my readings in musicology, that American music at its best represents miscegnation, the thing many powerful whites (and for that matter some powerful people of color) won't find useful for the master narratives they are trying to sell.  Charles Mudede had an interesting complaint, a small complaint, about Black Panther.  It was about the soundtrack. There was no jazz.  Not a single note.  Jazz is the most American of African diaspora musical styles, perhaps, and so at one level it would make sense that for a fictional tale set in a fictional African empire called Wakanda there would be no jazz.  But at another level, the level of how the musical currents of jazz evolved out of various popular styles ...  jazz itself might be too racially mixed in its roots to quite fit a fantasy about an African empire and African monarchy untouched by the legacy of slavery in the United States.  I get that and I enjoyed the film a lot.  When the sequel to Black Panther arrives I plan to go see it.

But I do wonder whether master narratives about jazz and blues in racial terms can glide over how working class musicians often had more in common with each other than with the people whose parties they may have played at.  Dale Cockrell's new monograph on the evolution of minstrelsy traditions into ragtime and eventually jazz has gotten me thinking about some of these issues, how the higher the brow, to put this starkly, the more insistent people get on the racial purity of the music or the art or the literature.  The lower the brow ... the less likely that can be to crop up.

But ... back to Wedgeworth and some stuff he's got to say about that famous Calhoun.


Calhoun and Slavery
Calhoun, again, is an important representative of this shift. He said this in 1837:
Abolition and the Union cannot coexist. As the friend of the Union I openly proclaim it–and the sooner it is known the better. The former may now be controlled, but in a short time it will be beyond the power of man to arrest the course of events. We of the South will not, cannot, surrender our institutions. To maintain the existing relations between the two races, inhabiting that section of the Union, is indispensable to the peace and happiness of both. It cannot be subverted without drenching the country in blood, and extirpating one or the other of the races. Be it good or bad, [slavery] has grown up with our society and institutions, and is so interwoven with them that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. But let me not be understood as admitting, even by implication, that the existing relations between the two races in the slaveholding States is an evil:–far otherwise; I hold it to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be to both, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually. 
In the meantime, the white or European race, has not degenerated. It has kept pace with its brethren in other sections of the Union where slavery does not exist. It is odious to make comparison; but I appeal to all sides whether the South is not equal in virtue, intelligence, patriotism, courage, disinterestedness, and all the high qualities which adorn our nature. 
But I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.
Now, what’s really interesting in this speech is something that no one has yet brought up in the popular conversation. Calhoun makes slavery the solution to the problem of capitalism:
I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history. This is not the proper occasion, but, if it were, it would not be difficult to trace the various devices by which the wealth of all civilized communities has been so unequally divided, and to show by what means so small a share has been allotted to those by whose labor it was produced, and so large a share given to the non-producing classes. The devices are almost innumerable, from the brute force and gross superstition of ancient times, to the subtle and artful fiscal contrivances of modern. [emphasis added by WtH] I might well challenge a comparison between them and the more direct, simple, and patriarchal mode by which the labor of the African race is, among us, commanded by the European. I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe–look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse… There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. [emphasis added by WtH] The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North.
This shows us that the issue was much more than “hate” or “prejudice.” Slavery was a key part in political and economic theory. It was the perceived solution to the problem of the unemployed and those who could not otherwise support themselves. It also helped to support workers’ rights in that it removed the most burdensome labor from free workers and placed it on slaves. The slaves were a sort of property, to be sure, but they also received a sort of full patronage (harsh and brutal as it was) from their masters. Calhoun believed this was an inescapable feature of economics and that slavery was preferable to laissez-faire capitalism.
Why did this come to mind years after I initially read it.  There's a piece by Ibram X. Kendi at The Atlantic discussing, a bit roundaboutly, the New York Times 1619 project.  Over at Slate some authors have written as if conservatives are aghast that the NYT is saying slavery was a significant factor in the history of the United States.  Highlighting the bad faith from which the founding fathers drafted their concept of political and personal liberty for what was in practice a narrowly defined subset of humanity does not "have" to include repudiating all of the ideals the founders of the United States said they stood for.  On the other hand ... some contemporary anti-racist discourse makes white supremacist ideas, as John McWhorter has put it, the Original Sin of the United States, at times of whites as a race.  That different groups in Europe formulated different forms of white supremacist ideology is worth discussing.  It can yield interesting observations about how white supremacist views that developed within Portugal and Spain were superceded by more English and French variants of the same core idea.  This is something that can, and has been, discussed at basically conservative religious websites.

Still, it's a bit hard to grasp Ibram Kendi's decision to treat John Calhoun and John McWhorter as being in a sequence of people saying, in some essential way, the same thing:


As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “WAR IS HELL but there are things worse than Hell, as every Negro knows.”
Imagine living in a hell for 400 years that the gatekeepers keep calling heaven. Ministers such as Richard Baxter telling you about a voluntary slave laboring on plantations. Slaveholders such as Senator John C. Calhoun telling you slavery is a positive good. Judges such as Henry Brown telling you the South is separate but equal. Republicans such as Newt Gingrich telling you American policies are color-blind. Black intellectuals such as John McWhorter telling you the nation is post-racial. White supremacists such as Donald Trump telling you they are going to make America great again.

Richard Baxter was an English Puritan and if one of the aims of 1619 writing is to highlight the American legacy of defenses of racism I would think that Richard Baxter is not nearly as significant a figure in America's history of pastors defending slavery as Robert Lewis Dabney was.  Why pick the English Puritan?  It's not entirely mysterious ... but it is a little mysterious when Dabney seems like the more obvious choice, for those who know who Dabney is.

There is, however, something more mysterious. I just don't see how Calhoun and McWhorter can plausibly be fit into this sequence as if they were saying the same thing, calling "hell" a "heaven".  I can't think of a single piece in which McWhorter could be plausibly said to have said such a thing as Kendi attributes to him, mainly by implication.  

It's because I read Wedgeworth quotations of Calhoun that reading Kendi's statement about McWhorter being a gatekeeper who calls "hell" "heaven" like Newt Gingrich or John Calhoun sparked my memory.  It's one thing to disagree with what John McWhorter or Adolph Reed Jr. have had to say about anti-racism as a contemporary ideological movement, and another to claim that it's possible to bracket McWhorter into a league with John C. Calhoun.  

The misgiving I have about contemporary anti-racism is that it can so often seem to be cast in the most literally and figuratively black and white terms.  With half my lineage being Native American I can get the sense that a Ta-nehisi Coates is thinking just in black and white terms.  At one level that is understandable but at another level, I admit I don't get it.  Native American and white relations in the Pacific Northwest don't necessarily map well on to the kinds of mythologies and epic narratives that may dominate the American South a la things discussed by Wedgeworth, or counter-narratives such as the New York Times 1619 project.

I can read Wesley Morris writing about how black music is the music of freedom and as much as I love a lot of music by African Americans I don't hear the music as representing freedom.  Writers who say that the music of black Americans  represents freedom may be writing more about James Brown or Aretha Franklin or Charlie Parker more than George Walker, Julius Eastman, Florence Price or even maybe James Scott.  There's a cultural script about authentic, beautiful music that evolved in the era of Romanticism that, in the hands of established journalists and music historians, got flipped.  Roll over, Beethoven, rock and roll has become the new authenticity.  I can hear both Beethoven's Op. 111 and John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillin" as beautiful pieces of music without having to assume one is "free" and the other isn't.  Morris seems to understand that many beautiful things about American music have come from blacks and whites exchanging ideas ... yet there are passages where Morris comments about wanting there to be something that can't be extracted from the core of the music of black people.  That's where I, as the son of a mixed race marriage, immediately and firmly stop having the same ideas.  Some music historians have pointed out that Charley Patton had some Native American lineage, the godfather of the blues was black but also at least partly Native American.

But American music of any kind as a symbol of freedom is a narrative decision, and it's a decision that won't necessarily be shared by people who didn't grow up into that kind of cultural narrative.
A friend of mine who grew up in Nagasaki could never get into blues because she said all the songs sounded the same, the formula seemed too restrictive and leave no room for imagination.  At those words I could only say that that's a fair concern but, as a guitarist, I didn't feel that way.  But it was an ear-opening moment to hear someone say that a musical style I spent so much of my life loving, blues, did not represent freedom to someone who was not raised in an explicitly American cultural context.  

African American music could represent freedom to Russian musicians or German musicians or it could be a musical style they never even hear.  These master narratives about what music is supposed to mean ... those of us who love a musical style may easily forget that that's an extra-musical story about what the music means to us that may have no resonance to those who aren't situated in the culture we who love the music are in.  

Now what McWhorter has argued is that contemporary anti-racism has evolved into an ideology that presents whiteness and American slavery as a kind of original sin.  I'll quote from McWhorter at some length because perhaps you, dear reader, can appreciate through reading his work why I have been puzzled by Kendi's rhetorical bracketing of John McWhorter with John C. Calhoun:

Let's take something McWhorter wrote for The Atlantic:

Feminist history is typically described in three waves: The struggle to secure voting rights, then workplace rights, and third—roughly—to upend stereotypes. The battle against racism and its effects is often described in a similar three-part timeline, with movements against slavery and segregation, and then—vaguely—the post-civil-rights era.

The ambiguity of that last term masks that third-wave antiracism, as one might call it, and reflects a profound change in methods and attitudes. Just as the first and second waves of both feminism and antiracism transformed social structures, third-wave antiracism may seem parallel to third-wave feminism in moving on to a different form of abuse, psychological rather than institutional. But this focus on the psychological has morphed, of late, from a pragmatic mission to change minds into a witch hunt driven by the personal benefits of virtue signaling, obsessed with unconscious and subconscious bias. As noble as this culture of shaming genuinely seems to many, it’s a dead end.
The abolition of slavery was the first major victory in black progress in America. A reading of David Blight’s recent biography of Frederick Douglass vividly underscores what a titanic struggle abolition was for people white and black, given not only the violent hostility that it regularly elicited, but the bafflement. Many intelligent people found it counterintuitive and even ridiculous that black people could ever be treated as whites’ equals. Yet the battle was worth it: Slavery ended.

Perhaps more familiar is the violence, skepticism, and indifference that civil-rights leaders of the mid-20th century encountered in fighting legalized segregation. Even many educated, temperate-minded people—some of them black—thought Martin Luther King Jr. was a hasty rabble-rouser “stirring that stuff up,” at least until his murder led to his more respectful evaluation in martyrdom. Yet the bloodiness of Selma and Birmingham served a purpose: Segregation was outlawed, and black lives changed profoundly.

Crucial, also, is that religion played a key role in making the case for both of these phases of the struggle. Blight stresses how much Douglass relied in his speeches on the prophetic teachings of Jeremiah and Isaiah, and the stories of Exodus, Job, Lot’s wife, and others, identifying the hypocrisy of a nation calling itself Christian while nakedly oppressing so many of its people


The secularism of this new therapeutic approach to racial progress may seem fundamentally dissimilar to the previous two phases. In fact, however, third-wave antiracism is a profoundly religious movement in everything but terminology. The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave’s version of original sin. The idea of a someday when America will “come to terms with race” is as vaguely specified a guidepost as Judgment Day. Explorations as to whether an opinion is “problematic” are equivalent to explorations of that which may be blasphemous. The social mauling of the person with “problematic” thoughts parallels the excommunication of the heretic. What is called “virtue signaling,” then, channels the impulse that might lead a Christian to an aggressive display of her faith in Jesus. There is even a certain Church Lady air to much of the patrolling on race these days, an almost performative joy in dog-piling on the transgressor, which under a religious analysis is perfectly predictable.
Kendi points to a piece McWhorter wrote back in 2008.  It is difficult to conceive how what McWhorter has written in 2018 can be treated as of a piece with John C. Calhoun's defense of the slavery practiced in the United States made in the 19th century.  McWhorter has taken aim at what he regards as an ideologically driven form of anti-racism that he regards as ultimately counter-productive.

... [Ta-Nehisi] Coates is a symptom of a larger mood. Over the past several years, for instance, whites across the country have been taught that it isn’t enough to understand that racism exists. Rather, the good white person views themselves as the bearer of an unearned “privilege” because of their color. Not long ago, I attended an event where a black man spoke of him and his black colleagues dressing in suits at work even on Casual Fridays, out of a sense that whites would look down on black men dressed down. The mostly white audience laughed and applauded warmly—at a story accusing people precisely like them of being racists.

This brand of self-flagellation has become the new form of enlightenment on race issues. It qualifies as a kind of worship; the parallels with Christianity are almost uncannily rich. White privilege is the secular white person’s Original Sin, present at birth and ultimately ineradicable. One does one’s penance by endlessly attesting to this privilege in hope of some kind of forgiveness. After the black man I mentioned above spoke, the next speaker was a middle-aged white man who spoke of having a coach come to his office each week to talk to him about his white privilege. The audience, of course, applauded warmly at this man’s description of having what an anthropologist observer would recognize not as a “coach” but as a pastor.
I have seen whites owning up to their white privilege using the hand-in-the-air-palm-out gesture typically associated with testifying in church. After the event I have been describing, all concerned deemed it “wonderful” even though nothing new had been learned. The purpose of the event was to remind the parishioners of the prevalence of the racist sin and its reflection in themselves, and to offer a kind of forgiveness, this latter being essentially the function of the black people on the panel and in the audience. Amen.
Some might see all of this as a healthy sign of moral advance. And I suppose if I had to choose between this performativity and the utter contempt most whites had for any discussion of discrimination 50 years ago and before, I’d choose our current moment. But goodness, it piles high and deep, this—well, I’ll call it fakeness. The degree of fantasy and exaggeration that smart people currently let pass in the name of higher-order thought on race parallels, again, Biblical tales.
Coates, for example, argues in one article after another that America’s progress on race has been minimal, despite pretty window dressing here and there, and that there is no reason to hope things will get any better. Yet one can be quite aware of the prevalence and nature of racism in America while also understanding that the recreational pessimism of views like Coates’s is melodramatic and even unempirical. To insist that Starbucks or even Dylan Roof define America’s progress on race is as flimsy as treating certain young black men’s misbehavior as embodying the black essence. Perfection is ever a dream; we are, as always, in transition. Everybody knows that.
The very fact that the modern equivalent of the graduate student I knew reveres Coates’s writing is a sterling indication that America has grown up quite a bit on race even in the past quarter of a century. The fact that this brand of enlightenment has not made it to every barstool and kitchen table in the country hardly disqualifies it as influential. Anyone who really thinks that on race America has merely rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic isn’t old enough to realize that most smart white people as late as 1978 would have found The Wire about as interesting as Chinese opera.
Also, views like Coates’s qualify more as performance art than thought in their disconnection from activism and pragmatism. If the government is not doing enough to help black people, precisely what would a Coates offer as counsel? Coates argues for reparations, ignoring decades of careful argumentation that has shown the impracticality of the idea. Who would the money go to? And for exactly what? And whence the sense many have that to ask such questions is to miss some larger point? Is the larger point to provide fodder for personal atonement? It would seem that for some, bemoaning that reparations aren’t happening is as active, vital, and self-affirming as making them happen, or, better, moving on and considering realistic strategies for forging change.
The self-affirming part is the rub. This new cult of atonement is less about black people than white people. Fifty years ago, a white person learning about the race problem came away asking “How can I help?” Today the same person too often comes away asking, “How can I show that I’m a moral person?” That isn’t what the Civil Rights revolution was about; it is the product of decades of mission creep aided by the emergence of social media.
What gets lost is that all of this awareness was supposed to be about helping black people, especially poor ones. We are too often distracted from this by a race awareness that has come to be largely about white people seeking grace. For example, one reads often of studies showing that black boys are punished and suspended in school more often than other kids. But then one reads equally often that poverty makes boys, in particular, more likely to be aggressive and have a harder time concentrating. We are taught to assume that the punishments and suspensions are due to racism, and to somehow ignore the data showing that the conditions too many black boys grow up in unfortunately makes them indeed more likely to act up in school. Might the poverty be the key problem to address? But, try this purely logical reasoning in polite company only at the risk of being treated as a moral reprobate. Our conversation is to be solely about racism, not solutions—other than looking to a vaguely defined future time when racism somehow disappears, America having “come to terms” with it: i.e. Judgment Day. As to what exactly this coming to terms would consist of, I suppose only our Pastor of White Privilege know.
For Kendi to bracket McWhorter with Calhoun as part of a lineage of people who insist on saying that "hell" is really "heaven" seems like poisoning the well with respect to John McWhorter's writing.

The first thing I read by McWhorter was his friendly review of Edward A. Berlin's biography of Scott Joplin.  I respectfully disagree with McWhorter's surmise that ragtime is a style that doesn't lend itself to larger scale development but I have written thousands of words on the theoretical and practical grounds from which I believe ragtime can be brought into larger-scale forms like sonata or fugue and that's a currently incubating project.  I trust you can get my point here, but I'll say it, there are ways to disagree with something John McWhorter writes without assuming the worst or implying the worst about his motives.  

McWhorter isn't the only writer who has made a point of criticizing contemporary anti-racist discourse, obviously.  I've made some mention of Adolph Reed in the past and he is another African American author who has written critically about what he regards as an ideology of anti-racism:

At a 1991 conference at the Harvard Law School, where he was a tenured full professor, I heard the late, esteemed legal theorist, Derrick Bell, declare on a panel that blacks had made no progress since 1865. I was startled not least because Bell’s own life, as well as the fact that Harvard’s black law students’ organization put on the conference, so emphatically belied his claim. I have since come to understand that those who make such claims experience no sense of contradiction because the contention that nothing has changed is intended actually as an assertion that racism persists as the most consequential force impeding black Americans’ aspirations, that no matter how successful or financially secure individual black people become, they remain similarly subject to victimization by racism.


Antiracist discourse posits White Supremacy/racism as a totalizing phenomenon, a force impervious to changing institutional circumstances—a primordial foundation of being, just as the White League contended in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The thrust of the Take ‘Em Down NOLA argument, for example, is that: (1) the monuments were erected to celebrate white supremacist power, which was the foundation of slavery, lynching and brutalization of black New Orleanians, disfranchisement, imposition of Jim Crow, and denial of blacks’ basic civil rights. (2) The fact that they remain on display in the present underscores the continuity of White Supremacy’s power. (3) That continuity indicates that, as in the past, contemporary racial inequalities most meaningfully result from white supremacy, which therefore must be the primary target of struggles for social and racial justice.
But adducing a causal dynamic that underlay a political conjuncture in the past to support a claim about causality in the present presumes that the same dynamics operated in the past and present. That is, the race-reductionist formulation advanced to validate the claim of white supremacy’s overarching power presumes what it needs to demonstrate. Sociologist Mara Loveman follows Rogers Brubaker, Pierre Bourdieu, and others in arguing that this interpretive problem and the confusions that generate it can be addressed by “abandoning ‘race’ as a category of analysis to gain analytical leverage to study ‘race’ as a category of practice” (Loveman , 895–896; Brubaker and Cooper ; Bourdieu ). She embraces historian Barbara J. Fields’s assessment that “attempts to explain ‘racial phenomena’ in terms of ‘race’ are no more than definitional statements” and argues that “Rejection of ‘race’ as an analytical concept facilitates analysis of the historical construction of ‘race’ as a practical category without reification, and thus provides a degree of analytical leverage that tends to be foreclosed when race is used analytically” (Loveman , 895–896; Fields , 100).
In the current political context that interpretive pathology is pernicious politically because the claim of continuity demands ignoring historical specificities of both past and present that are crucially important for making adequate sense of either. The point of analogizing current conditions to slavery or earlier regimes of openly white supremacist hierarchy is to subordinate consideration of the discrete, complex mechanisms through which contemporary inequalities are reproduced in quotidian life to the meta-historical contention that generic white supremacy, or racism, most significantly explains disadvantages and injustices that black Americans suffer today. But even in the nineteenth century, at the nadir of the defeat of Reconstruction and imposition of disfranchisement and the Jim Crow order, black politics was not adequately reducible to a unitary struggle against white supremacy; differences of perspective, agendas, and programs pertained among blacks and determined strategic directions, including pursuit of allies (Stein ).
In the antiracist political project white supremacy/racism is—like “terrorism”—an amorphous, ideological abstraction whose specific content exists largely in the eyes of the beholder. Therefore, like antiterrorism, antiracism’s targets can be porous and entirely arbitrary; this means that, also like antiterrorism, the struggle can never be won. Clint Smith’s romantic assessment of Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s contribution indicates as much and makes clear, as does everything that Ta-Nehisi Coates has ever written (e.g., Coates ), that winning anything concrete is not the point. The “politics” that follows from this view centers on pursuit of recognition and representation on groupist terms—both as symbolic depiction in the public realm and as claims to articulate the interests, perspectives, or “voices” of a generic black constituency or some subset thereof, e.g., “youth” or “grassroots.” It is not interested in broadly egalitarian redistribution.
Antiracist politics is a class politics; it is rooted in the social position and worldview, and material interests of the stratum of race relations engineers and administrators who operate in Democratic party politics and as government functionaries, the punditry and commentariat, education administration and the professoriate, corporate, social service and nonprofit sectors, and the multibillion-dollar diversity industry. That stratum comes together around a commonsense commitment to the centrality of race—and other categories of ascriptive identity—as the appropriate discursive framework through which to articulate norms of justice and injustice and through which to formulate remedial responses. It has grown and become deeply embedded institutionally throughout the society as an entailment of the victories of the 1960s. As the society moves farther away from the regime of subordination and exclusion on explicitly racial terms to which race-reductionist explanations were an immediately plausible response, race has become less potent as the dominant metaphor, or blanket shorthand, through which class hierarchy is lived. And as black and white elites increasingly go through the same schools, live in the same neighborhoods, operate as peers in integrated workplaces, share and interact in the same social spaces and consumption practices and preferences, they increasingly share another common sense not only about frameworks of public policy but also about the proper order of things in general.

Those quotidian realities put pressure on the reductionist premise that racial subordination remains the dominant ideological or material framework generating and sustaining systemically reproduced inequalities and class power. This tension underlies a source [of?] the appeal of ontological views of racism as an animate force that transcends time and context. Because it is an evanescent Evil that is disconnected from specific human purposes and patterns of social relations, racism, again like “terrorism,” can exist anywhere at any time under any manifest conditions and is a cause that needs no causes or explanation. That is why statistical demonstration of apparent racial disparities seems within antiracist discourse to be self-sufficient evidence of the persistence of racism’s paramount impact on black Americans, despite the fact that findings of disparity: (1) are not surprising considering how entrenched inequalities work; (2) do not tell us much, if anything, about the proximate sources of the disparities; and (3) do not point to remedial responses, although those retailing the findings often present them as though they do.  ...

To summarize Reed's observations, there is a kind of anti-racism that is promoted as an alternative to a viable left in the United States, and that anti-racist ideology can often take the form of what, were we to discuss GOP power brokers and their approach to race, we might call dog whistle politics.  
McWhorter and Reed seem to be making cases that contemporary anti-racism as a civic religion traffics in the kind of dog whistles that could be seen in racist power holders of the past.  Both express doubts that reparations can be thought of as a cohesive policy, let alone an attainable policy.  Both McWhorter and Reed have written criticisms of reparations as American black intellectuals and yet, it seems for a writer like Kendi, McWhorter's writing exists within the same spectrum of calling hell heaven as the writing of Calhoun.  Reparations or racism does not adequately account for black writers arguing that reparations do not seem like a realistic or attainable policy goal.

This is an issue that I admit to having some personal frustration about, having had a Native American father and a white mother.  In the Pacific Northwest there has been plenty of racial tension and racism and yet this was a region in which a black man could found a town in the Washington territory.  This has been a region where Native and white groups could, in the earlier phases of interaction according to Alexandra Harmon's work, mostly get along.  I am finding that as a Pacific Northwesterner of mixed race lineage that what can make the agenda of a New York Times project frustrating is that, well, it's New York people presuming to speak about, to and for the entire American experience.  I don't see why those of us in Seattle or Portland should ignore that but I increasingly struggle to see why we have to just take as given what people in New York claim to say is true about the entire nation.  

Martin Luther King didn't exactly accomplish anything for Native Americans.  That doesn't mean he can't be regarded as having said and done some valuable things ... but Native Americans have not had a Martin Luther King or a Booker T. Washington figure.  David Treuer has noted this in his book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and has proposed that Native Americans don't need the Martin Luther King figure.  What Native American political activism has lacked for titanic figures etched into cultural mythological narratives may be made up for by having legal scholars, historians, lawyers, and grass roots figures working to obtain practical political goals.  It's not lost on me any given day of my life that it was possible for me to be born because the United States as a collective society did not manage to annihilate Native Americans.

For communities of color what can seem like a weakness could also be a strength.  If Native American communities have not had figures as mythic as King or Washington or Douglass that can be thought of as a weakness but perhaps it can be thought of as a strength by saying things a different way, pointing out that Native American political activism has had to get by tackling policy issues without the benefit of legendary personality cults.  The more I read Adolph Reed's work the more I get a sense that one of his long-term criticisms of black literary and political communities is that there's a kind of performance of righteousness that can stand in for political achievement.  Being against racism is something I can appreciate ... but Reed and McWhorter have written what I believe are serious critiques of anti-racism that define racism and the legacy of racist policies in delimited terms. 

Kendi lost me by deciding to drop John McWhorter into a line of writers in which John Calhoun and John McWhorter are by some alchemy of rhetoric expressing the same views about race, racial history, and the United States.  For this son of an American Indian who shared that for American Indians there was no "good guy" side in the American Civil War, there are anti-racist mythologies that are on offer that seem tailored for somebody ... but Adolph Reed's withering criticism of anti-racism as an ideology appealing to those thought leaders and pundits whose business it is to be anti-racist seems accurate.

Ibram Kendi's approach ... is probably best summed up by Kendi:

The reparations debate returned to Capitol Hill this week for the first time in more than a decade. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover testified on Wednesday in a hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Is this hearing, and the fact that some Democratic presidential candidates are endorsing reparations, the beginning of the reckoning? Is the United States finally beginning to acknowledge the economic damage that state-sanctioned racist policies have wrought since slavery? Is the United States finally beginning the process of eradicating those policies and repairing their damage?

For every $100 of wealth that white families hold, black families hold just $5. One in four black households has zero or negative wealth, in contrast to one in 10 white households. White households make up 96 percent of the top 1 percent, while black households constitute 2 percent of that highest wealth bracket.

The racial wealth gap will not repair itself. And it is growing.


Reparations is not my litmus test for presidential candidates. But it is a litmus test for whether a person is being a racist or anti-racist when it comes to one of the most damaging racial inequities of our time, of all American time—the racial wealth gap. To oppose reparations is to be racist. To support reparations is to be anti-racist. The middle ground is racist ground. It is occupied by people passively doing nothing in the face of racial inequity, or actively supporting policies that reproduce racial inequity. The anti-racist approach requires standing up for the policies, like reparations, that can create racial equity.

Which racial wealth gap?  Between whites and blacks?  Between whites and Asian Americans? Between whites and Native Americans? Between Asian Americans and blacks? Between Asian Americans and whites? Between Asian Americans and Native Americans?  Between Native Americans and whites?  ... you probably got the idea by now.

Kendi doesn't seem to see any obligation to explain which racial wealth gap is under discussion--those for whom the history of racist policies cannot be taken in only black and white terms with respect to skin color may find that writers like Kendi are not discussing the Native American situation. For some Native Americans the idea of reparations can seem like a sick joke.  How, exactly, do you put a price tag on land stolen and oil drilled?  The federal government can't go un-slaughter the buffalo, give tribes their dead languages back, or un-sterilize the Native women who were regarded in a prior progressive era as unfit to reproduce.

Kendi's litmus test, at length, gets me thinking back to Steven Wedgeworth's comment that John C. Calhoun said that slavery was a positive good, and that in every advanced civilization there was inequality between those who worked and those who amassed the wealth of that work,  and that race-based slavery for blacks helped to ensure that a war between labor and capital could be avoided, at least in the South (supposedly).

Kendi seems clear enough asserting that the litmus test for whether you are a racist or an anti-racist comes down to a single issue, reparations.  For or against.  If you're not for them you can be a racist, even if you're Adolph Reed or John McWhorter. The middle ground is racist, after all.

As one dog whistle designed to signal who is righteous and who isn't Kendi's form of anti-racism is effective, at least as public relations, but I can't quite be persuaded that Adolph Reed Jr. and John McWhorter are actually racists for being publicly skeptical about the plausibility, coherence, and likely effectiveness of explicitly race-based reparations as proposed by African American thought leaders.  

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