By Kwesi P. Dean
June 20, 2020
In 1861 enough nonslaveholders hurled themselves into a prolonged bloodbath to enable a proudly proclaimed slave republic to sustain itself for four ghastly years. These “plain folks” suffered terrible casualties and privations on behalf of a social order that objectively oppressed them in a variety of well-known ways. Many contemporary Northerners and indeed even some Southerners, not to mention subsequent historians, expressed wonder at the nonslaveholders gullibility, ignorance, and docility. Slavery, it has long been asserted, had numbed the lower-class whites quite as much as it had ostensibly numbed the enslaved blacks. Southern abolitionists, for understandable reasons, became the bitterest proponents of this argument and railed in frustration at the nonslaveholders’ groveling before the aristocratic pretensions of the haughty planters.
Yet, we know very well that those nonslaveholders were touchy, proud people who hardly specialized in groveling and who were as quick as the planters to shed blood over questions of honor. We know also that they seized and maintained substantial political rights and were largely responsible for some of the most democratic state constitutions in the United States.(1)
The argument for their supine capitulation to an overbearing aristocracy reduces to the assertion that someone other than themselves ought to have been the judge of their own best interest—that they were incompetent to understand their own world and their place within it. Ever since Rousseau, those who believe themselves democrats but have difficulty accepting majority rule have been prone to square this ideological circle by claiming that the people have been duped and that their words and actions do not reflect their own inner will. Presumably, someone else is to be the guardian and agent of the people’s will. Those who argue in this manner, without meaning to be satirical, claim for themselves the honor of defending genuine democracy against the voters.
The nonslaveholders have always been prime candidates for such treatment. Ostensibly, they lived in an unreal world in which they could not understand who and what they really were. I do hope that I may be forgiven for treating this elitist cant as unworthy of attention. If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interest, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous encounter session in consciousness-raising.
The most attractive general interpretation of the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime has stressed the commitment of the white South to racial supremacy. This is, of course, an old argument—which is no reason to slight it, especially since George Frederickson has recently repackaged it so nicely as “Herrenvolk Democracy” and introduced considerably more sophistication into the discussion.(2) And, in fact, one would have to be mad to discount or to try to minimize the extraordinary power of racism as an ideological force for political and social cohesion. But there are at least two difficulties with the Herrenvolk thesis.
First, it is not at all obvious that the nonslaveholders took the equation of slavery and racial subordination for granted. If they had felt sufficient reason to oppose slavery on the grounds taken by men like Henry Ruffner, Cassius Clay, and Hinton Helper, the argument that slavery was indispensable to racial dictatorship would have appeared as dubious as it eventually proved to be. Yet, such questions could not even be discussed during the late antebellum decades outside certain privileged border-state sanctuaries. To be sure, the silence in the Lower South and in much of the Upper South as well can in part be attributed to a subtle and not-so-subtle reign of terror, as Clement Eaton has so forcefully demonstrated.(3) But, again, the nonslaveholders were not political and moral marshmallows. Their easy acquiescence in an enforced consensus itself requires an explanation that takes full account of their toughness, pride, and strong sense of being men with rights equal to those of the richest planter.
The second difficulty with the Herrenvolk thesis is that it bypasses the living history. Let us suppose that racism explains everything—that it is logically sufficient to explain the loyalty of the nonslaveholders to the regime. We could not, therefore, conclude that other explanations were false or even inferior if, taken together, they could also account for that loyalty, with or without the factor of racism. On the contrary, the slaveholders and nonslaveholders were bound together by links firm enough to account for the political unity of the South; it was precisely the conjuncture of these economic, political, and cultural forces, including intense racism, that made secession and sustained warfare possible.
For the moment, we may bracket the question of the scope and depth of that loyalty. To speak of Southern unity is to recognize no more than that effective degree of consensus necessary to remove the slavery issue from antebellum Southern politics and necessary to drag most of the Southern Unionists, with whatever misgivings, down the secessionist road. If we can get that far, it will be possible to open the brackets and take full account of the bitter social divisions beneath the surface of white society, as well as the evidence presented by Roger Shugg and others of growing stratification and class conflict.(4) The problem is precisely to explain the impressive degree of class collaboration and social unity in the face of so many internal strains.
To begin with, it is essential to distinguish sharply between the yeomen of the plantation belt and those of the up-country. But to do so is not so simple once we move from model building to empirical verification. First, the categories changed over time. In a restless society with a moving frontier, a self-sufficient locality in one census year often became a staple-producing locality in the next. The up-country of the early days of Virginia or South Carolina passed into extensions of the plantation belt as new crops, techniques, and transport facilities were developed. Second, there was a large intermediate area. Winn Parish, Louisiana, for example, was a hotbed of unionist radicalism and opposition to secession and then to the Confederacy; later, it became a center for Populist and socialist movements and then gave us Huey and Earl Long. On the surface, it would seem to have been, in antebellum times, a nonslaveholding parish, par excellence. Yet, twenty-five percent of its population was black; one-third of the whites owned at least one slave; and firm ties existed with the plantation belt along with intense mutual hostility. (5)
Nevertheless, in such “plantation states” as Alabama and Mississippi we can identify large isolated enclaves, not exclusively up-country, which were only peripherally integrated into the slave economy. And here, we confront more than evidence of Morton Rothstein’s dual economy—as valuable as his insight is likely to prove. (6) We confront, rather, evidence of a dual society that did not simply follow the class lines dividing commercial from subsistence farmers. Farmers in these up-country counties resembled farmers in the interstices of the plantation belt in being nonslaveholders within the subsistence orbit of a more generally dual economy, but, beyond this first approximation, they might more profitably be understood as a distinct social class. The critical element in their social position was the geographic isolation, not of their particular farms, but of their locality as a whole. Hence, unlike the farmers of the plantation belt, they controlled the local political process and shaped a regional culture of their own. All available evidence attests to the distinctiveness and insularity of their culture. True, little comprehensive work has been done since the pioneering work of Frank Owsley and his protégés, but folklorists, musicologists, and anthropologists have been doing work that points toward the delineation of a discrete way of life.
In a variety of ways, the up-country made the slaveholders and especially the secessionist politicians nervous. Up-country farmers were not bashful about sneering at the aristocratic pretensions of the planters. In many instances, they took the plantation counties as a negative reference point for their own voting behavior. And many defiantly opposed extremist and anti-Union measures.
Yet, we might also note that some of these counties went for secession and many others split or tamely acquiesced. The fire-eating Albert Gallatin Brown built much of his power on such districts in Mississippi. (7) Moreover, those who try to correlate up-country districts with a specific behavior pattern have been driven to distraction by the apparent ideological inconsistencies, quite as much as by the methodological difficulties.
At issue is the limited concern of these quasi-autonomous social worlds with the great questions of Southern and national politics. We might, for example, wonder why some of the same up-country districts in Mississippi followed Brown into support of proslavery extremism and secession and yet ended by deserting the Confederate cause.
This apparent inconsistency was expressed less dramatically in more typical up-country counties of the Lower South, which moved from moderate Unionism to acceptance of secession and then to defection from the Confederacy. It is not at all clear, that is, that they were not initially motivated by allegiance to particular local leaders whom they had come to trust to defend their regional autonomy against the plantation belt and indeed against all outsiders.
On the terrain of political ideology, the up-country, notwithstanding its manifest hatred for the pretensions of the gentry, was held loyal to the slave regime by the doctrine of state rights—or rather, of opposition to the centralization of political power. So long as the slaveholders made few demands on these regions, their claims to being champions of local freedom and autonomy against all meddling outsiders appeared perfectly legitimate. Whatever else Northern abolitionists and free-soilers may have been, they were outsiders who claimed the right to determine local institutions. Conversely, the provincialism of the up-country held to a minimum demands on the slaveholders for extensive expenditure for an infrastructure capable of modernizing the nonplantation areas. There is, in fact, little evidence that the great majority of the up-country farmers wished to exchange their proud isolation and regional way of life for integration into the commercialized economy of the despised plantation belt. Certainly, things were different in West Virginia, East Tennessee, and some other areas, but there, the economy was being integrated into that of the neighboring free states to produce a qualitatively different social setting, the full scope of which deserves extended study.
In the Lower South, at least, those up-country farmers who swore loyalty to the Union and those who swore loyalty to their state were generally of a piece. Their first loyalty in fact was to their own local community, and either the Union or the state might either respect or threaten that community autonomy. Hence, the difficulties that befell the Confederacy, when the up-country desertion rate soared; hence, the movements of outright treason to the Confederacy that accompanied the imposition of necessary war measures. The exigencies of war had forced the Confederacy to do to the up-country the very things it had sworn to oppose. The whole point of secession, after all, was to defend local rights against the pressures of centralization. Confederate conscription, taxation, requisitioning, in a word, outside domination, had to be perceived in the up-country as a betrayal of trust. (8)
The slave South held the allegiance of its second society not because the yeomen farmers and herdsmen outside the plantation belt had been duped, nor even because they were ignorant. Rather, their alleged ignorance was an ignorance on principle—that provincial rejection of an outside world which threatened to impinge on the culture as well as the material interests of the local community. The slaveholders could abide the autonomy of the up-country not because they necessarily respected its moral foundations but because they could be—and indeed had to be—indifferent to its development. The last thing the slaveholders of the plantation belt wanted was an additional tax burden to finance the opening up of areas regarded as potentially competitive or simply irrelevant to the plantation economy. Much less did they wish to promote the development of areas that might have to proceed with free labor and might, therefore, develop a marked hostility not merely to slaveholding aristocrats but to slavery itself. The solution lay in a mutually desired silence and limited intercourse, notwithstanding occasional struggles over a few more roads and schools and, perhaps even more important, demands for ritualistic respect and recognition. This type of silent understanding has had many parallels elsewhere—in Sicily, for example.
The main problem of interpretation, then, concerns the yeomen of the plantation belt itself. Antebellum dissent, such as it was, and wartime desertion centered in the up-country. The commitment of the farmers of the plantation belt to the regime, by normal political standards, became much firmer. Why? The answer of race will not, by itself, do. The up-country yeomen hated and feared the blacks and wanted them under tight racial control. But the up-country yeomen also were quick to identify slaveholders with slaves—to perceive the organic connection between the two, not only materially but culturally. To the up-country yeomen, slaveholders and slaves were two peas in the same pod. The plantation-belt yeomen also saw the master-slave relationship as organic, but they yielded much more easily to planter leadership. (9)
Those who wonder at the plantation-belt yeomen’s support of slavery might well begin by asking themselves a question. Why should the nonslaveholders not have supported slavery? After all, men and women normally accept, more or less uncritically, the world into which they are born. Something must drive them to reject and resist the social order that, at the least, offers them the security of a known world.
Let us take Joshua Venable, dirt farmer of Hinds County, Mississippi. Josh owned no slaves, worked forty acres of so-so land more or less competently, and struggled to keep his head above water. Fortunately for him, he was kin to Jefferson Venable, owner of the district’s finest Big House, Ole Massa to a hundred slaves, and patron to the local judge as well as the sheriff. Moreover, Josh Venable’s wife was kin to John Mercer, himself “massa” to only ten or twelve slaves but decidedly a man on the make. The marriage, in fact, brought the Venables and the Mercers into an uneasy conviviality. Massa Jefferson Venable had to swallow a bit to tolerate his parvenu relatives at table, especially since John Mercer could not be broken of the habit of spitting on the floor in the presence of the ladies. But, business is business, and kinfolk are kinfolk—even by marriage.
Now, poor Josh Venable himself rarely got invited to Cousin Jeff’s home and virtually never to his dining room table. Rather, he was usually invited to an outdoor affair—a barbecue to which many of the nonslaveholders of the neighborhood were also invited to celebrate lay-by or the Fourth of July. Josh also had to notice that he was only invited when many neighboring slaveholders were urged not only to come but to bring all their “niggers.” Still, kin was kin, and Josh got an ostentatious welcome as a member of the family. Ole Massa Jefferson, his own self, once took him by the arm to the barbecue pit to meet the new state senator, whom Ole Jeff had just bought and who might come in handy.
Now, of course, Josh resented his cousin—so much so that he continued to hope that he would someday own even more slaves himself and maybe even reach the pinnacle of success—some day he might be able to make Cousin Jeff a low-interest loan to cover his famous gambling debts, not to mention those debts for somewhat unclear expenditures in New Orleans. But, how far could he carry his resentment toward Cousin Jeff? Everyone, including Josh, knew that his cousin may have been a little stuffy, may have put on airs, but that he always had a helping hand for anyone in the neighborhood, black or white. Josh raised some extra corn and a few hogs. What was he supposed to do, hand-carry them to Cincinnati? Wait to sell them to unreliable drovers, who specialized in hard bargains? Cousin Jeff was always ready to pay a fair price even though he could just as easily have increased the orders through his factors and not bothered with such local trivia.
Josh also knew any number of local farmers who raised two or three bales of cotton. If they had to spend $125 each for a cotton gin and then pay the costs of individual marketing, they could not have covered costs. Yet, there was good Ole Jefferson Venable, and two or three other such worthies, ready to gin the cotton for a fair service charge of 9 or 10 per cent and market it with his own large crop to insure a fair price for his poorer neighbors. No one ever accused Ole Jeff of trying to make a dollar off his neighbors. On the contrary, he was quick to send food supplies to help someone down-and-out. And everyone saw how he sent a few of his hands to help a sick neighbor get in his small crop when everything hung in the balance. If it were not for Ole Jeff and a few others like him, how could many of the poorer farmers make it? The planters occasionally hired the sons of poor neighbors for odd jobs or even to help with the cotton picking. They hired a relative here or there to oversee their plantations. If a small farmer got lucky and was able to buy a slave before he could profitably use him, there was Jeff ready to rent him. for a year. Alternatively, if a farmer got lucky and needed the temporary services of a slave he could not yet afford to buy, there was Jeff ready to send one over at the going rate. And everyone remembered how the local planters sent their slaves to throw up houses for new settlers and did everything possible to help them get started. Certainly, that kind of neighborliness was normal in rural areas throughout the United States. But in the South population was much more scattered, and it would have been hard to help people get on without the work of those slaves. What then could lead Jefferson Venable’s neighbors to see him as an enemy? He in no way exploited them— except perhaps for the poor white trash he occasionally hired for odd jobs and treated with contempt. And they were no-account anyway.
Plantation-belt yeomen either aspired to become slaveholders or to live as marginal farmers under the limited protection of their stronger neighbors. And there was nothing irrational or perverse in their attitude. White labor was scarce and unreliable, at least if a farmer needed steady help. Any farmer who wanted to expand his operations and make a better living had to buy slaves as soon as possible. It was, therefore, natural, as a matter of inclination and social conscience, to be ready to ride patrol, to help discipline the slaves, and to take part in the political and police aspects of the slave regime—in short, to think and act like slaveholders even before becoming one. That many were motivated by racism, sadism, or a penchant for putting-on-dog is undeniable. But even without those pleasantries, the path of social duty emerged as the path of self-interest.
Under the best of circumstances, a class of independent proprietors, with limited spatial range and cultural horizons, could hardly be expected to put hard questions to these relationships. No matter how poor or marginal, small farmers were in no position to make sophisticated analyses of the indirect workings of the slave system as a whole and to conclude that they were oppressed by the very planters who played Lord Bountiful or in any case did not bother them. But this particular class of farmers had had its own political history in relation to the planters, upon which some reflection is in order.
As shorthand for a complicated historical development, we may focus on one or two features of the democratic upsurge of the Jacksonian era. If one reads the political speeches and dwells on the rhetoric, the South after 1819 was torn by the bitterest kind of class warfare. The farmers rose against the aristocracy, the debtors against the creditors, the people against the privileged few. The ensuing political reforms, as Fletcher Green and Charles Sydnor in particular have so well shown, were in fact formidable. Politically, the South underwent substantial democratization. The haughty aristocrats were beaten, although more thoroughly in Mississippi and Alabama than in Louisiana, not to mention South Carolina.
And yet, this period of democratization coincided precisely with the great period of territorial, demographic, and ideological expansion of the slave regime. In its wake came the suppression of Southern liberalism. Those who brought democracy to the Southwest also brought plantation slavery and the hegemony of the master class. At this point the Herrenvolk thesis is usually trotted out to resolve all contradictions. Unfortunately, it cannot explain how the racism of the yeomanry, no matter how virulent, led the farmers to surrender leadership to the slaveholders instead of seizing it for themselves. And they did surrender it. It is not merely or essentially that lawyers attached to the plantation interest dominated politics-after all, in a democratic society lawyers usually do. The main question is the social interests they serve, not their own class origins. Quantitative studies of social origin and class have solemnly revealed what every fool always knew: politicians are not themselves usually bankers, industrialists, planters, or in general very rich men—at least not until they take office. The fact remains that the democratic movement in the South effectively removed the slavery question from politics and thereby guaranteed the property base of the slaveholding class—which is all a hegemonic politics is supposed to do.
This process of democratic expansion under slaveholder hegemony emerges from a critical view of antiaristocratic rhetoric. Consider some of the major recurring issues: a more equitable legislative apportionment; transfer of the state capital to the interior and away from the centers of entrenched wealth; credit and banking policies to aid debtors rather than creditors; internal improvements designed to open up those areas suitable to staple-crop production; and a final solution to the Indian question. In each case, we find the rhetoric of class war—the poor against the rich, the people (defined as white) against the aristocrats. But, “the people*’ turn out to be planters-on-the-make as well as yeoman farmers trying to move up the social and economic scale. In Mississippi, for example, the goal was to break the power of the arrogant nabobs of Natchez and to permit the rapid settlement and development of the interior. But that development always concerned the development of the slave-plantation system itself—of the extension of one side of the dual economy. The struggle, above all, pitted old and conservative slaveholders against bold new men whose commitment to the social order did not deviate one whit from that of the nabobs themselves. Room had to be made for free competition, which, despite pretenses, required public power in Mississippi as elsewhere. The new men required new money, and the old banking monopoly, tailored to the limited interests of the Natchez aristocracy, had to give way before a policy that would create the credit necessary to buy land and slaves for the interior.
The demands, by their very nature, brought a significant portion of the planter class of the interior into coalition with the democratic yeomanry, whose interests appeared largely the same. Thus, wealthier and more successful men in the interior easily assumed leadership of the movement. Among those of common interest, the men of wealth, education, and influence—or, at least, men who looked like a good bet to become so—were obviously better equipped to formulate policy. And when the crash came, the interior planters themselves retreated into the conservative policies they had helped overthrow: by that time, they were established and needed sound money rather than loose policies designed to advance the interests of some new competitors. By that time also, the farmers of the up-country as well as of the plantation belt had felt the ravages of speculative banking and were ready to accept the lure of hard money or at least fiscal responsibility. In short, so long as the yeomen accepted the existing master-slave relationship as either something to aspire to or something peripheral to their own lives, they were led step-by-step into willing acceptance of a subordinate position in society. They accepted that position not because they did not understand their interests, nor because they were panicked by racial fears, and certainly not because they were stupid, but because they saw themselves as aspiring slaveholders or as nonslaveholding beneficiaries of a slaveholding world, the only world they knew. To have considered their position in any other terms would have required a herculean effort and a degree of sophistication capable of penetrating the indirect and subtle workings of the system as a whole.
It was not impossible that ordinary farmers could have accomplished that herculean effort and attained that sophistication. The secession crisis and especially the defection from the Confederacy demonstrated the fragility of the up-country’s loyalty to the regime. And even in the plantation belt, the slaveholders were by no means sure that such arguments as that of Hinton Helper would not take hold among a basically literate, politically experienced, and fiercely proud white population, if economic conditions deteriorated or free discussion was encouraged. The slaveholders contained the threat by preventing the message from reaching the people—by placing the slavery question beyond discussion. It did not, however, require a genius to recognize that a hostile free- soil regime in Washington, the constant agitation of the slavery question within the national Union, or some internal crisis that upset the delicate ideological balance within the South might lead to the emergence of an antislavery movement at home. Secession and independence had much to recommend them to the dominant propertyholders of so dangerous a world.
How loyal, then, were the nonslaveholders? Loyal enough to guarantee order at home through several tumultuous decades, loyal enough to allow the South to wage an improbable war in a hopeless cause for four heroic years. But by no means loyal enough to guarantee the future of the slaveholders’ power without additional measures. The full measurement of this problem lies ahead of us, although William Freeh- ling’s forthcoming book on the South in the fifties should answer many questions. But what seems especially clear is that the yeomanry, both of the up-country and of the plantation belt, have yet to receive the careful attention they deserve. Without it, much of the Southern experience must remain in the shadows.
Until recently, we knew little about the actual lives of the slaves, and many said we would never know because the data were not available. Yet, Rawick and Blassingame, Levine and Stuckey, and others as well, have demonstrated the value of the old adage, “Seek and ye shall find.” In retrospect, the work of Frank Owsley, Blanche Clark, Herbert Weaver, and others of their school appears all the more impressive despite sins against statistical method and a tendency toward romantic reconstruction. (10) Much as a new generation of scholars has been able to uncover the story of the slaves by taking a sympathetic view of their lives, their aspirations, their struggles for survival, so did the Owsley school point a similar direction with regard to the yeomen. One would hope that a new wave of research, however, will pay close attention to the fundamental cultural as well as economic cleavages that separated the farmers of the up-country from those of the plantation belt.
One thing is certain: we shall never understand fully the triumph and eventual demise of the slave system of the South, nor the secret of the slaveholders’ success in establishing their hegemony in society, nor the nature and extent of the persistent threat from below within that very hegemony until we study the daily lives, the religion, the family and courtship patterns, and the dreams of the ordinary farmers of the slave South—which means that we shall have to study them with the same kind of sympathetic understanding and fundamental respect that so many fine scholars are now bringing to the study.
1. See esp., Fletcher M. Green, Constitutional Development in the South Atlantic States, 1776-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1930); and “Democracy in the Old South,’’ Journal of Southern History 12 (February 1946): 3-23.
2. George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), esp. chap. 2.
4. Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939).
6. Morton Rothstein, “The Antebellum South as a Dual Economy: A Tentative Hypothesis,” Agricultural History 41 (October 1967): 873-83. Of special relevance is a work formally addressed to French history but with far-reaching implications for many other parts of the world: Edward Whiting Fox, History in Geographic Perspective: The Other France (New York: Norton, 1971).
7. See esp., James Byrne Ranck, Albert Gallatin Brown, Radical Southern Nationalist (New York: Appleton-Century, 1937).
8. This well-studied subject might usefully be reinterpreted in the light of the insights advanced by Eric J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968), and Bandits (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969)
9. In short, the yeoman of the up-country and of the plantation both perceived slavery as embodying an organic social relationship, although they judged the effects differently. Their perception was accurate. I have tried to sketch that organic relationship in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon, 1974), especially Book One.
10. Frank L. Owsley, Plain Folk of the Old South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950); Blanche Henry Clark, The Tennessee Yeoman, 1840-1860 (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1942); Herbert Weaver, Mississippi Farmers, 1850-1860 (Nashville; University of Tennessee Press, 1946).
(Agricultural History, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1975), pp. 331-342)
At a BLM demo recently, a young woman had a sign that said “I’m proud of being in a generation that stands up”. It made me think about my generation and wonder what do we have to be proud of? Members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, are in positions of power throughout global systems and I wonder, what have we done to bend the arc toward justice?
My conclusion is, not much. More personally, I haven’t done much . . . certainly not enough.
My personal reality is one of relative comfort marked by the individual pursuit of success because, though black, my family provided that privilege. My dad served twice in Vietnam, and in the course of his military career moved our immediate family from its working class origin to a solidly middle class status. I started in private, predominantly black grade schools where believing I could be most anything was practical because we were surrounded by people like us who were doing most of the things we could imagine.
According to US census bureau data, black income increased by 28% between 1965 and 1970. With unprecedented growth and opportunity, it was easy for my parents and their circle to imagine that it would go on, “the rising tide“ and all of that.
We faced racism by living in places where some people didn’t think we should live and doing things others thought we shouldn’t. Those incidents, painful as they were, were mostly seen as inconvenient as they didn’t prevent our access to safe spaces. There was so much good happening in our lives that the bad couldn’t outweigh it.
Growing up in the 70’s meant multiple black “firsts” were a part of my life…I watched Arthur Ashe win Wimbledon, Dr. J become a sports icon, and I could read Black Panther, Falcon and Power Man comics. Tom Bradley’s election as Mayor in Los Angeles was a political first and he was the exact opposite of a 60’s protest veteran turned politician. Bradley’s rise to power seemed to indicate a certain acceptance because he was simply good enough in a multiracial environment. Black trail blazers used access forged by civil rights and affirmative action victories to create a false sense of confidence in the coming merit based society.
On the other side of the coin, I remember watching the Watergate hearings and Nixon being held accountable for lying. If the most powerful man in the country could be punished for not following the rules, anyone could.
Falling into the individualistic trap of the 80’s was easy. Pursuing the good life while black seemed to bring about the promise for which so many had sacrificed. Moving to a small town in the Midwest meant leaving the protective circle of a vibrant black middle class. That brought more slights, subtle limitations and missed opportunities explained away for one reason or another. The explanations felt like lies and excuses, but those explanations didn’t register. I was taught my success was in my own hands. Like so many others in my generation, working twice as hard was the formula to overcome set-backs and road blocks.
Focusing on the successful, near superhuman black exceptions as the rule meant that my failures were personal responsibilities, signs of a lack of character or persistence. We were only getting part of the picture as we didn’t see the communities that supported our heroes. We didn’t know who picked them up when they fell. Believing the “by your own bootstraps“ fairytale meant there was no need to see what was happening to others like me or to care much about those whose failures weren’t my responsibility. Life is what it is but we still get what we work for, no matter how unequal the system.
Despite living in a small, predominantly white town, I grew up in the mostly working class black church scene. In high school, I followed my mother’s social justice work in the NAACP, I read Baldwin, Ellison and Malcolm X, and I started to acknowledge that I may not be crazy in having the feeling that things were unfair. No matter, I was still privileged, “living in the lap of luxury” as one church mother put it. My mother never had to clean white peoples’ houses like her mother to make ends meet. No matter the problem, I should just put my head down and keep pushing. With all of my advantages, personally advancing was a duty to the race.
While at the university and after moving to Chicago, I connected with black professionals who, like me, wanted as much of the good life as we could afford. We worked hard, made our social bubble of house parties, tennis dates and skiing trips while moving up the ladder. We treated the Rodney King incident as something tragic, enraging, and remote…not likely to happen to us. All the while it was happening around us regularly with Chicago police earning a reputation for harassment stops and coerced confessions.
As someone black who made white people comfortable, I fell into diversity work at a small, mostly white, community college. I started teaching classes to low income adults returning to school for GEDs and job training and then as an advisor to a small number of minority students. The biggest part of my job was keeping the black basketball players eligible to play and out of trouble. A promotion to being the Equal Opportunity officer of the college system put me in the position to investigate violations of the same laws that made my life possible, but only on a case-by-case basis.
I was good enough at playing the honest broker to get hired in HR by a local plant for a Fortune 500 company. It was a lawsuit mandated position forced by black employees to address systemic racism in the plant’s HR processes. No one told me that in the interviews. Named a “change agent” by the business unit president, I was aware enough to know the ghetto I was confined to. Authoritarian cultures rarely reward change agents.
I did enough in good faith to keep the company out of court while noticing that most of its zero tolerance policies and pronouncements about fairness were just things they were saying. There was no intention to lead the community toward a more equitable future. Working in the system for change wasn’t really changing anything. I was providing cover for making money. I was making money too so why should I complain?
The foundational lie of identity politics and policies in the US is simple. They are based on a hierarchical, positivist framework created by the most privileged group to maintain that very privilege without looking like assholes to the market. Note that it was the Nixon Administration that first implemented Affirmative Action at the Federal level.
I think back about that time as a diversity manager, leader of the “get-a-long” school as it was called on the plant floor, and how hollow it all was. . . . how hollow much of my equality work was in an inherently unequal system. Progress was subject to the personal commitment of leaders with no skin in the game. Equality work was largely PR, window dressing, with box ticking activities that just needed to be under budget and not too progressive. Placating those who would judge that we had done enough was enough. Most of those who judged really didn’t care.
At best, I whispered truth to power in inoffensive language to try to guide leaders to the self realization that openness and equity were the right things to promote and that they were profitable. Little did I know that businesses have other goals besides making profits Maintaining a social order leaders can support is part of their motivation too.
My job was to create programs and systems for awareness and fairness so people of color could justify their existence to those in power and the white majority through affinity groups, banquets and minority awareness month celebrations. All the while, people were dying in the streets at the hands of the very system in which I was working. Though my job was directly in the identity industry, I wasn’t alone. Many like me invested in attempting to change the system from the inside through personal achievement to prove black people are worthy of inclusion.
The foundational lie of identity politics and policies in the US is simple. They are based on a hierarchical, positivist framework created by the most privileged group to maintain that very privilege without looking like assholes to the market. Note that it was the Nixon Administration that first implemented Affirmative Action at the Federal level.
Each non-white male group was tacitly pitted against each other, measuring progress against the relative attainment of success as defined by the group at the top of the pyramid. Class issues and differences could be sublimated and enhanced at the same time in a so-called merit system. “If one could make it, it is possible for all” became an ideological club to beat down talk of general inequality in social power and distribution of wealth. Absurd conversations involving choosing an identity category if one could identify as more than one or companies getting “two-fer” credit by hiring a Hispanic female somehow made sense. Tolerance was the goal and the person showing the least amount of tolerance was the starting point.
Angela Davis noted in a speech to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelonain 2018 that “if we stand up against racism, we want much more than inclusion. Inclusion is not enough. Diversity is not enough…We do not wish to be included in a racist society.” She concluded by indicating that true change will require a broad series of revolutions, both personal and systemic, in all of our social relationships, including economic relationships. (1)
I spent years of appealing to the better angels of the nature of others by being good. Later I used identity statistics for exposing the gaps of fairness, all to have a seat at the table where oppressive decisions were made. It was no more than placing band-aids on an open wound as the body count of destroyed lives mounted.
1. https://youtu.be/bzQkVfO9ToQ – Angela Davis address to CCCB