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Revolution, Reconstruction and Race in the US: The Complex History Behind BLM Protests

The current movement demanding the removal of statues of Confederate leaders goes beyond the focus on monuments to take in the normalisation of a built environment where racism rules unopposed.

Current protests against mass incarceration and police violence led by the Black Lives Matter movement have also demanded the removal of statues and monuments that commemorate the racist history of the  Confederacy. Most monuments to this coalition of the slave states were erected during the period of Jim Crow (1877-1950s), the system of segregation that was maintained for nearly a century after the slaves’ emancipation. That system was maintained through police power and vigilante violence, in addition to legislation that justified the ideology of “separate but equal.” (The resemblance to South African apartheid should be obvious.)

The uprisings against mass incarceration and police violence are thus equally committed to “Fallism,” that is, taking down those statues and monuments that commemorate the racist history of the Confederacy. The issue goes beyond the focus on individual statues or monuments to take in the normalisation of a built environment where racism rules unopposed because it is baked into the visual landscape even if declared ideologically moribund.

People gather to protest for the removal of a Confederate statue of John B. Gordon at the Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia, US June 9, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Dustin Chambers

As the US celebrates July 4 as Independence Day, it is worth reflecting on the fact that the history of the nation is the story of its unfinished battle with slavery. The Declaration of Independence issued on July 4, 1776, was guided by the premise that “all men are created equal.” The first Revolution (1775-1783) against the British set into motion socio-economic and political processes that led to the Civil War, which is also called the Second American Revolution (1861-1865), and that abolished slavery. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s accompanied the dissolution of Jim Crow. The current uprisings are the latest phase in the unfinished struggle against racism. When viewed together, the struggles against slavery and racism reveal the public secret of American exceptionalism: its simultaneous dependence on, and disregard for black life.

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It is well known that the wealth produced by black labour, whether through enslavement and sharecropping, or “free” penal labor, was essential to the success of American capitalism. The journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones notes that at the time of the Civil War, “the value of enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than [the] nations’ railroads and factories combined.” The “peculiar institution” was a part of the historical geography of the American South where it was associated with the spectacle of violence, enforced servitude, and the violent intimacies that made enslavers into fathers. The North was no less “racist,” but it operated through muted structures of dispossession such as redlining, racial covenanting, and other practices of spatial segregation that enabled the rise of an entitled, white, urban working class and middle class.

For instance, housing scarcity became a significant issue in the Northern cities in the aftermath of African-Americans’ mass migration from the South to the North. About 1.5 million migrated between 1910 and 1930, and another 3 million followed suit between 1940 and 1960. At the time, practices of redlining and racial covenanting were instituted to protect the right to (white) property ownership. These were important financial-cum-juridical instruments that precluded African-Americans from accumulating private property, i.e., the single-family home, by excluding them from credit markets.

Exclusion from mortgage financing, and the imposition of a cess for black homeowners in the form of an inflated and unsustainable monthly payment that was supposed to lead towards eventual home ownership instead led to home foreclosures. The sociologists Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton termed their classic study of urban segregation (1993) an exploration of “American apartheid.” Exclusion from the engine of accumulation works in tandem with the excessive disciplining (including mass incarceration) of African-Americans: in fact, the one justifies the other.

Of course, the story is neither so brief nor so simple. Nor is it a narrative of relentless oppression and victimhood. However, the history of slavery, slave emancipation, and struggles against a system of segregation maintained by law, police power and vigilante violence is at the very heart of American modernity.

Frederick Douglass. Photo: Unidentified photographer, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Public Domain

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The political philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois discussed the brief decades of Reconstruction (1863-1877)—that followed the American Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which finally abolished slavery and rendered slaves into citizen)—as a utopian moment in American history. [The 13th Amendment offered a loophole, however, when it noted that neither “slavery nor involuntary servitude” would exist in the US “except as a punishment for crime.”] Du Bois referred to this brief opening as a time when abolition-democracy was allowed to govern. The term Du Bois used is significant: it conjugates slave emancipation as the necessary requirement for the fulfilment of American democracy. Or, to put it differently, it predicates democratic freedom (for all) on the freedom of the unfree. If slavery was the original sin of the republic, it was the slave who would undo it.

In Du Bois’s telling, Reconstruction was a moment of utopian possibility when schools were established, black industriousness flourished, and black politicians worked alongside whites at all levels of government. This democratic opening was soon undone by the political compromise that was struck between North and South in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, the assumption of the Presidency by then vice-president Andrew Johnson in the crucial period between 1865-1869, followed by the Presidencies of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881).

Simply put, the compromise oversaw the Republican Party’s retreat from its commitment to equal rights for ex-slaves, which had been enforced through the ongoing presence of the US Army in the Confederate states.

The Supreme Court also curtailed the reach of the Reconstruction Congress’s Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments through narrow legal interpretation. The one-time abolitionist, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., declined to intervene to stop the Jim Crow South from denying black men the vote. The court’s infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) ruled that state law could mandate separation so long as the state at least purported to offer equal facilities, effectively marking the end of Reconstruction. A program for the redistribution of Confederate lands to ex-slaves in forty-acre tracts announced by passage of Special Field Order 15 by General William Tecumseh in January 1865 was also overturned.

In the years that followed, black businesses across the South became targets of anti-black violence, while public lynching offered whites an occasion to participate in libidinal violence. In fact, The Crisis, the journal founded by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] in 1910, and which Du Bois edited for 25 years, was known for its investigations into anti-black lynchings. Police and political leaders were often key members of the secretive Ku Klux Klan, which produced a reign of terror across the South. The violence was both symbolic and real.

Also Read: What Lynchings in 19th Century US Can Teach Us About ‘New India’

There is, in fact an inverse relationship between the devaluation of black life and its excessive visual representation. Historically, images of the slave market, advertisements for the sale of slaves and bounty for runaways, lynching postcards, photographs of murdered activists and bombed churches, as well as oversexualised representations of African-American women have been crucial to securing white supremacy.

W.E.B. Du Bois
Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880

Du Bois’s text, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935) offered a radical, revisionist account of the period that challenged the then-dominant Dunning School of American history associated with the scholarly legacy of Professor William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University, and a founder and president (1913) of the American Historical Association. Dunning attributed the failures of Reconstruction to black incapacity and the opportunism of the North rather than to the nation’s lukewarm commitment to black equality. The destructive legacy of the Dunning School, which had shaped generations of scholarship as well as lay interpretations of Reconstruction, would only be redressed in the 1980s and beyond with work by Ira Berlin, Steven Hahn, Leslie Rowland and the signal text by Columbia historian Eric Foner entitled Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Business, 1863-1877 (1988).

Instead, Du Bois was among the first to argue that America had come close to its founding goals of creating a genuine social, political and economic biracial democracy during Reconstruction. He had published his views on the period even earlier in an essay published in the American Historical Review [AHR] the flagship journal of the American Historical Association in 1910. This would be the last time that an African-American scholar was published in the AHR until John Hope Franklin, another scholar of Reconstruction as it so happened, published his 1980 essay, “Mirror for Americans: A Century of Reconstruction History.” In the meantime Black Reconstruction, which was much discussed when it was first published, was ignored by the scholarly community for nearly fifty years.

Divergent interpretations of Reconstruction had everything to do with the terms on which African-Americans were incorporated into the body politic. In turn, this has shaped how scholars understand the role of capitalism in American history, and the centrality of slavery to it. Were African-Americans incapable of self-rule and the capacity for accumulation? Or were they secret sharers in the American drama, prophets of the future and keepers of the past who would save America from herself, as Du Bois argued? What was the relationship between African-Americans and the work-in-progress that is “America”?

Du Bois focused on two crucial points as he centred slavery and slave agency in his account of the American republic 2.0. First, he argued that the slaves had reclaimed their humanity as they armed themselves and fought in the Union Army and Navy— that freedom was realised through the barrel of a gun. The capacity for righteous violence was also a moment when the freedom to act out of one’s own will and volition became clear.

Next, Du Bois forefronts failed solidarity and the lack of common purpose between the white and black proletariat. He attributes this tragic failure to the investment in white privilege, which he calls a psychological wage that allows white workers to assert their racial superiority over black workers, and deny them equal recognition. Thus, white workers transact in, they derive value from the wage of whiteness in materially consequential ways, e.g., higher wages, access to better housing, social entitlements, and so on. In this they were enabled, Du Bois argued, by the determination of men of property and capital, both in the North and the South, to sustain their hegemony over the white as well as the black working classes.

There are intimations in Du Bois’s prescient and deeply purposeful work that he understood modern racism to have been inaugurated by slave emancipation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Ironically, formal equality between the races also gave rise to the century-long effort to deny them substantive equality whether through refusing equal pay for equal work, or provisioning decent housing and schooling. African-Americans’ inability to accumulate wealth due to their enslavement and later, as a consequence of the ongoing impact of inherited (white) privilege is today at the heart of demands for reparations.

Also Read: Reviving the Legacy of African-American Intellectual Du Bois

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If racial capitalism is the invisible, organising motor of African-American dispossession, reparations brings those structures into view and provides a way to measure, count and account for historic advantage. Not every wrong can be righted, but it is surely important to acknowledge the inherited privilege of beneficiaries of a society built around a history of violent intimacy and legislated inequality, especially when that society touts “possessive individualism” as a secular religion.

In contrast, those who commemorate the Confederacy do so proudly and publicly through the Confederate statues and monuments that dot the Southern landscape. They, too, recall the fraught history of slavery and racism but they do so from the point of view of a defeated, abhorrent ideology that some seek to revive and replicate. The proliferation of monuments to the Confederacy as a slave-owning republic is a reminder that white supremacy never died.

A minority might articulate the ideology of white supremacy but its effects are extensive, ongoing, and insidious. Today, Trump and his allies have done much to revive the potent symbolism that lives on in the toxic imagery of the Confederacy, converting it from commemoration to crusade. There is something fundamentally theological in the structure of white supremacy and its belief in the spectacular sacrifice of black bodies and genocidal violence. Trump’s actions remind us that racism is effective precisely because it functions as political theology, as a mythic structure that is unchanging even as historical time otherwise seems to move forward.

Neo-Nazis stand off with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. Credit: Flickr/Evan Nesterak

Neo-Nazis stand off with anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. Credit: Flickr/Evan Nesterak

The American republic’s experiment with democracy was a world historical event, but it was marred by the tragic flaw of American racism. Du Bois’s observation of the contradictory processes by which freedom was historically achieved, namely the simultaneity of (civil) war with (slave) emancipation reminds us that for African-Americans freedom never arrives without violence. July 4 is an important holiday for Americans, a day of remembering the nation’s founding values. It is a good time to ask whether the hypervisibility of black suffering at this time could signal not continuity and tradition, but instead the bursting of a bubble, a global scandal some of whose abettors are thinking about changing.

Anupama Rao is associate professor of History (Barnard College) and MESAAS, Columbia University. She is senior editor of Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East and associate director of the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society. She has most recently edited and introduced Memoirs of A Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of R. B. More. She is working on a study of B.R. Ambedkar’s thought worlds.