Friday, July 08, 2016

Helter Skelter?

"3 Dallas Cops killed, 7 wounded. This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” Tweeted last night by former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, who's now a right-wing talk show host. This is the kind of embarrassing ugly comment that used to remain between friends. Now it goes viral immediately. Going viral is the whole idea for a talk show host, but Walsh took the crude comment down shortly after his thousands of followers got the message.

We are all miked. I’m sure each time an innocent black man is shot and killed by police there are similar thoughts expressed by African Americans who’ve had enough. Senseless violence makes people angry. But you don’t hear incitement among the leaders of the black community. The marches have been peaceful. The organizers have called for peaceful protest. It is a volatile moment. And again we have white radio hosts calling for vengeance against the President of the United States, because he is black. There are a lot of Americans out there eager to hear that. That audience has been carefully and expensively cultivated.

This idea of “race war” is not new. The Charles Manson "Helter Skelter" murder spree was supposed to foment race war. The plan was shaped by Manson’s bizarre interpretation of the Beatles’ White Album.

But it goes back much further. Back to the mass murder of blacks in their neighborhood in Oklahoma City, and similar violent white rampages elsewhere. The cheerful, boastful, well attended, proudly photographed lynchings of black citizens in the years following Emancipation. Towns used postcards of the lynch mob and their victim as a form of advertising.

It goes back to our nation’s founding. What is this “well-regulated militia” the 2nd Amendment speaks of? The militia was a very serious institution in the South, when all white plantation owners and their white employees were required by law to belong to the militia, whose job it was to routinely inspect slave quarters to remove firearms and whip the slaves found to own the firearms. The “well-regulated militias” were slave patrols. As were the first organized police forces across the South. So the animus has deep roots.

(Thom Hartmann writes a clear history of the well regulated militia here.)

After slavery was abolished the tradition of oppressing black citizens persisted through Jim Crow. In some respects the situation of blacks worsened. When they were slaves they had value. Being free they had no value and were more casually killed or worked to death. Worked to death? This was routine under the Southern penal system. On a regular calendar basis large industries like lumbering and mining and large scale agriculture informed the local police and sheriffs that workers were needed, and those lawmen would round up black men where they knew they would be, often walking home from their jobs or gathering where black citizens regularly met. Charges of vagrancy sufficed to imprison the black citizen for whatever term of work the industry owner asked. Free labor, essentially slave labor. Except the black man convicted in this way was also assessed fines which placed him in an endless round of peonage and debt, often till the was worked to death.

(PBS produced a great documentary about the abuses of the Jim Crow period, which you can watch online.)

So the recent hatred directed at black Americans has a backstory. It has a deep history, but it isn’t just “history”. It’s still around. The resentment over the casual contempt shown to our black president by white Americans. The ignorant questioning of his legitimacy and his religion and his citizenship, much of it led by Donald Trump. The resentment black citizens feel over these routine indignities and systematic racist targeting is not “history”, it’s now. It’s grown worse since Obama was inaugurated. It would be naive to say it doesn’t amount to an orchestrated backlash against the “uppity black man.”

(VOX summarizes several academic studies of the sources and the stubborn persistence of white racism in America.)

Black Lives Matter, you say. The predominantly, overwhelmingly, white right wing in this country responds with All Lives Matter. It’s a cynical response, surely, but what’s wrong with it? These few paragraphs found on Reddit explain what’s wrong with it. Besides the cynicism and insincerity, I mean.

Certainly all lives matter. Right now, though, the way this country has turned more divided and insecure and poorer for most people ever since Reagan was president, a few lives matter a hell of a lot more than the majority of others. The 1% are obscenely rich, the broad middle class is under stress, and over on the other end are the unemployed and the unemployable, who are split between poor whites and people of color.

For fifty or so years, following FDR’s New Deal and further advanced by LBJ’s civil rights and Great Society legislation, America’s working classes did very well. There were still a lot of racial tensions, though, because the New Deal, when it was enacted, was shaped very carefully to put people of color at the back of the line. Not because FDR was a racist, but because a very powerful and senior block of progressives came from the South, where they hated Lincoln and black people in equal measure. That was why they were not Republican.

When Hubert Humphrey spoke boldly for civil rights at the 1948 Democratic convention, the South began pulling away from the Democratic Party. Nixon’s Southern Strategy finalized this by wrapping its loving arms around the racist voter. “Join us! We understand! We agree with you!” The Republican Party became the welcoming refuge of all racists and white identity types, to the deep embarrassment of millions of Republicans who believed in civil rights, and the Republican politicians who’d helped LBJ put it into law.

Sure all lives matter. But whose lives have been shortchanged the most and the longest? African Americans were slaves for several centuries, bred and driven and sold like cattle. Native Americans were driven off their lands and systematically cheated by federal treaty and exterminated by federal troops and state militias. The treatment of American workers ought to create a stronger fellow feeling, a reason to unify instead of resenting each other. Part of the Republicans’ Southern Strategy was pushed nationwide: the clever and manipulative dividing of people, setting them against each other, and then robbing them both by enacting policies that favored the very rich.

The people looted and victimized by the Reagan Revolution ought to come together to win back a prosperous, financially secure middle class. But keeping them fighting serves the 1%. And millions of white Americans seem happy to go along with this.

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