Racist Compulsive Disorder

I had actually been planning to write this off-topic piece several weeks ago, but unfortunately a ton of very on-topic news came down the pipe. Seeing that February is Black History Month, the delay has actually been fortuitous. Coincidence? Yes, of course it’s a coincidence.

coincidence

Aaaaaanyway, let me set up the background. Some  readers and Twitter followers have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a Civil War binge lately. It’s part of a more general Victorian era phase, I suppose. That and throughout most of my life I tended to study the history of pretty much every country but America. In fact I nurse a suspicion that American history is deliberately made as boring and bland as possible so as to actually discourage people from delving into it. My years of history education in school can be summed up by skipping ahead in the textbook, anticipating that time when we’d stop reading about settlers planting corn and finally get to World War II, only to be disappointed as we failed to reach it by the end of the year or glossed over it. Other than that, much of what I “learned” consisted of urban legends and myths which I would see debunked over the years immediately following high school graduation.

So I’m watching all these documentaries and I discover this site for the Civil War Trust, an educational organization which not only creates and promotes materials dealing with the Civil War, but also works to preserve historic battlefields. Incidentally one of those battlefields was none other than Gettysburg, where a developer wanted to build a casino of all things just a half mile from the historic site. Only in America. Getting back to the point, I end up watching some of their short videos and eventually I get to one about black soldiers in the Civil War. Here is the video in question:

Now from my experience it’s always a good idea not to read the comments on any Youtube video about the Civil War, because you will be inundated with Lost Cause bullshit. Since this video was about black soldiers, part of my mind was saying “Don’t read the comments! Do not read the comments! DO NOT SCROLL DOWN!  NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! WHY?”  Yep, I couldn’t help it. I scrolled too far.

As you no doubt guessed, it got pretty racist, real quick. And yet something about the predictability of those responses pissed me off. You can say “Well that’s the internet,” so many times until one day you just want to ask one of these fuckheads what is wrong with them. I’m not talking about “calling them out,” I’m not talking about shaming them, I’m talking about a serious inquisition to discover what their specific defect is. I want to know the motivations behind a person who says “Oh look at this, a positive video about the contributions of black people in American history. Better chime in with a racist comment to take them down a peg or two!” 

I want to know the reason because sometimes it feels like these people are literally compelled to react in that manner. If there was a video about Irish soldiers in the Civil War, what would you expect to see? No doubt there’d be a cascade of comments from dozens if not hundreds of proud plastic Paddies talking about how their great-great-great-grandfather came from some Irish town they first heard mentioned in a Flogging Molly song, and therefore they are in fact, Irish. What you won’t see is anyone coming in their pointing out the indisputable fact that in the 19th century Irish immigrants were often associated with drunkenness and criminality, or that it was Irish people who were largely responsible for the New York City draft riots, which happen to bear the honor of being the worst and most destructive riots in American history.  Remember that Scorcese film The Gangs of New York? That’s actually based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, and it’s fairly accurate in its portrayal of the times. One could say it was even too generous. It’s also worth noting that according to their own officers and outside observers, America’s black troops during the Civil War were far more disciplined and well-behaved than most white soldiers. Whereas the latter often spent their free time gambling, drinking, brawling, or visiting brothels, black soldiers tended to dedicate most of their free time improving their literacy or their military skills.

Obviously I’m not seriously trying to revive 19th century Know Nothing anti-Papist Irish bashing. I’m using this to show the contrast between how people react to certain topics in American history compared to how they react to black history. As with Irish history, we’re allowed to talk about Italian-American history without bringing up La Cosa Nostra and get away with it.  We’re allowed to speak with reverence about Confederate generals and soldiers and yet someone who brings up the undeniable fact that they did, in fact, wage a war to preserve slavery is shouted down. Bring up the topic of black soldiers though, and then suddenly everybody groans about “political correctness” and starts making comments about real or imagined problems in the black community today.

It’s not so much that these people harbor these racist ideas, it’s that they feel the need to give their two cents where it is neither required nor wanted. They can’t just see the video and think or say something racist to themselves to get whatever kind of self-satisfaction that apparently brings them. No, they need to let the world know, in spite of the fact that even they gain nothing from this behavior.

Black History month tends to be that time of year when morons all over the States tweet and post their late-winter mating call: “Why can’t we have a White History Month?” These people are oblivious to the fact that most of the history they’re taught tends to be from, for lack of a better word, a “white” point of view.  If you were to count up all the educational videos on the Civil War Trust’s Youtube channel alone, you’ll see that the majority of them don’t even mention black Americans. It was a “white man’s war” by white design. When it comes to battle documentaries, the most popular seem to be Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. None of those involved black troops.  This means those Youtube commentators can watch several hours worth of documentaries without suffering the sheer horror of being reminded that black Americans made positive contributions in American history.

As an amateur historian I’m kind of split on the question of how to start addressing this problem. I tend to agree with those who say that American history needs to feature more minority figures and viewpoints, but on the other hand I think that dividing history into “black history,” “Latino history,” and “Asian-American history,” ultimately leads to trouble. First of all, our country is a lot more diverse these days. Think about how teachers would look when they have to admit that no, there probably weren’t too many famous Arab-American heroes around the time of the War of Independence or the Civil War. I’m sure you could dig up some names, but then it’s clear to everyone including whomever you’re trying to enfranchise that you’re grasping at straws. As a people the Arabs have countless accomplishments, a fact which can and shold be included in history curricula, but I think there’s an even better solution.

Let us stop teaching that the history of people who kind of look like you is “your” history. Take all those things people want to teach as “black history,” for example, and so integrate them into the curriculum so that it becomes simply history. The problem with compartmentalized history isn’t just that you leave “white history” as the dominant field which gets to be called simply “history.”  If fails to cross-pollinate, if you will, by which I mean it may get specific groups interested in what you call “their” history, but it doesn’t get people from those groups interested in other people’s allegedly proprietary history. Integrating all these different narratives and stressing their inseparability would accomplish that.

Some people might object, saying it is unlikely that children and young adults will get passionately interested in the history of another people. Again, that depends on how you teach it. I am by America’s social standards, white, yet my roots in the United States go no deeper than the early 20th century, perhaps the late 19th century at the most. I doubt anyone today would see any injustice in the fact that I was forced to learn about settlers at Jamestown, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the War of Independence, the Constitutional Convention, the War of 1812, the Civil War, pioneers, homesteaders, and so on. Those people were “white,” and I’m “white,” ergo I’m supposed to assume these people I had nothing to do with in a country whose soil my ancestors had never touched have some kind of connection with me. My point here is that we’re already telling schoolchildren, even the white ones, to identify with the history of people who have very little in common with them save for the most superficial features. Therefore, would it be such a bold step to better integrate history and try to get young people interested in the history of other groups and nationalities?  If anything, Americans of all ethnic groups today have a lot more in common with each other linguistically and culturally than they do with Americans of the 19th century.

Perhaps this integrated approach would develop something that is still sorely lacking in American society- empathy. Empathy might have swayed the minds of some people against chiming in with a racist, stereotypical comment like the ones you see on that video. They might still hold the same beliefs, but at least they’d have the common decency not to piss in someone’s Cheerios just because they are driven irrationally mad by seeing a positive video about black Americans. Maybe empathy and a more inclusive method of teaching history could some day lead to a country full of rational people who don’t feel somehow threatened by the idea of learning about the history of black Americans. Till then, remember this advice and you will never go wrong- Don’t read the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Racist Compulsive Disorder

  1. Asehpe

    Great post! And I agree completely with the need to see ‘minority history’ as pure and simple history. We should stop thinking about the past as some sort of sports championship, where “my team” did this and “your team” did that, and so on. (There are some consequences of that, among which not only on the contributions of, say, Blacks to American History, but also that “collective guilt” theories, even though they target Whites, are similarly misguided.)

    On the topic of “Racist Compulsive Disorder”, though, here’s what I think: these people react almost automatically because they feel under threat. In their view, attempts at assigning positive value to African American contributions to American History are part of a vast attempt to shame and guilt Whites, which is especially odious since today’s Whites are not directly responsible for, e.g., slavery. To them, it’s almost a zero-sum game: more time for appreciating Blacks = more shaming / demonizing of Whites as the willing architects of all the evil things that happened to Blacks. In other words, appreciating Blacks = shaming Whites. So they see this perceived wrong and try to redress the balance.

    I suppose there are some commenters who are simply racist: they do think that Blacks are inferior, and that spending time ‘glorifying’ them is like trying to teach math to a monkey: a misguided, and ultimately impossible, task. But my gut feeling is that these people, in today’s America, are really a tiny minority. To most of them, it’s about the Blacks (against whom they do harbor prejudice, but…) trying to get too much sympathy, so much it becomes undeserved, and using it as leverage to attack Whites (unfairly). It’s not about “the truth (as they see it)”, it’s about “the danger (as they see it).” Or so I think.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I would say that most of these people, the internet/4chan type, are resentful of black America because they need a scapegoat. They grew up being told the same thing I was- work hard, follow the rules, and you will succeed. They’re also taught that overt racism and institutional discrimination were “fixed” by MLK in the 60’s. So they look at problems in the black community, which in some cases they have contact with only through popular media, and they decide their condition must be their fault.

      When we had the economic crisis and now we begin to awaken to the realization that life is not a meritocracy, the people who bought into the lie the most are angry.

      As for white guilt, I think the issue is a question of conscious decisions. By virtue of my heritage I can confidently say that it is highly unlikely that any ancestor of mine ever owned a human being. That being said, if I consciously identify with those who did. If I deliberately engage in apologetics like so many American whites unfortunately do, than I’m basically throwing in my lot with those whites who did own slaves or their unrepentant ancestors.

      I think part of the reason this happens is because in schools, we’re taught to idolize men like Washington or Jefferson, and when the issue of slavery comes up people start whining about political correctness and saying “they were men of their time.” Well, true, we should be able to separate some of their better ideas from slavery, but at the same time there were many people who were opposed to slavery and even racism at a time when it was physically dangerous to do so. Why don’t we teach white students to admire Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Victoria Woodhull, John Brown, Mark Twain, and U.S. Grant, the latter not only as a general, but even more importantly as a president. Even Confederate General James Longstreet gives us a very important story of redemption.

      Instead in high school we get this Gone With the Wind, “both-sides-were-right” bullshit. Another good idea would be teaching how white majorities actually suffered by siding with the ruling class instead of standing up with black and other oppressed groups(as Irish, German Catholics, and Italians tended to become “white” over time).

      White guilt is something one chooses by siding with the guilty.

      Reply
  2. Asehpe

    I tend to think we’re more a product of the society we grow up in. So lots of otherwise quite OK white people grew up thinking slavery was either OK, or then something unfortunate we had to put up with, because, well, that was the most widespread opinion in their times. Those who had the courage to question it were, well, courageous — people thinking ahead of the curve, people asking questions for which they wanted answers others than “that’s just the way things are”.

    I do think these people should be honored, but I also do have some sympathy for the average guy who took things as they were and just lived his life trying not to cause unnecessary trouble to himself and others. It’s not simply that this guy lacked courage or the power to think rationally; it’s that life is hard, there are all kinds of confusing ideas going around, and it’s difficult to see the truth in the middle of all the noise, since it doesn’t come with a “T”-stamp on it. See, even a guy like Lincoln, who basically stood on principle and started the war because he believed he had a good cause, still harbored many thoughts about Blacks that we would consider downright racist today. Indeed–many abolitionists, who thought slavery a shame of epic proportions, would balk at the thought of their daughters marrying a Black man, and might actually be quite willing to accept the ‘wisdom’ of ‘separate but equal’. Because it wasn’t all that obvious at first that Blacks were really equal to Whites, and that all the differences and problems had historical and social causes. It was still quite possible (even logically/rationally speaking) to believe that Blacks were indeed in some sense intrinsically inferior (though of course not deserving slavery) and still see oneself as basically a fair, open-minded fellow, just trying to do the right thing.

    Which sometimes makes me wonder about us in the present times. How many concepts are there that we — even the most left-wing, liberal, open-minded ones among us — accept as true, obvious, or unavoidable, but people in the future will see as wrong, complex, or changeable? Will they blame us for being ‘blind’? For not doing ‘what is right’ about some kind of ‘oppression’ that will be obvious to them but is not to us? And will we then lose the right to consider ourselves ‘good’ or ‘open-minded’ since we didn’t deal with it the way future people would have liked us to — in fact we didn’t even think it was a problem at all? Will they write dissertations about how we could ‘put up with it’ and ‘do nothing about it? 🙂 (‘Animal rights’ is kind of an example, but since there are many people who do consider it an important issue today, it is not really what I’m talking about — rather, something else, that even animal rights activists would accept today but people in the 23rd century won’t.)

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I tend to agree with James Loewen when he says in Lies my Teacher Told Me that we’ve made a huge mistake teaching American history as one never-ending timeline of progress. For example, we tend to believe that when the slaves were free, everyone was still extremely racist, and then from there on out it was a slow progress till 1964, when all racism was totally abolished, never to be seen again.

      In reality, in the aftermath of the victorious Civil War, anti-racism had a kind of revolution. And yes, many of those radical did advocate social equality though I’m sure they might have retained personal prejudices.

      The point is that during the Reconstruction era black Americans acquired rights and made achievements that were resolutely reversed and taken from them by violence and which they would not get back until after the Second World War.

      Since we teach history as nothing but progress, we just assume that everything must have got better and better in terms of race relations, and more importantly that they cannot possibly get worse. This aids that backlash culture that says everything would be fine with race relations in America if people would just stop bringing it up.

      Of course today on the other side we have identity politics, which becomes increasingly post-modernist and emotionally based. In spite of having nothing to show for their efforts, these IP academics are quite happy to shit all over previous struggles for equality because they supposedly weren’t radical enough. Apparently being sufficiently radical means having endless arguments about microaggressions, allyship, privilege, and who’s the most oppressed among people who are all able to afford college somehow.

      Reply
  3. Asehpe

    Indeed. Some say history is a construct, and unavoidably so — for how can we talk about ‘the past’ as a whole, if the past was as dense as the present is and as full of contradictory streams of events, narratives, and ideas? It seems to be the case that the vision of history as ‘progression’ is the result of a specific bias in certain kinds of historiography. Now, what I wonder is whether this can ever be solved. Unless history decays into a huge list of verified events, how can we talk about a ‘big picture’ without implying some sort of narrative and claiming that opposed narratives are ‘wrong’?

    Of course, even if the past is a construct, some constructs are much better made than others, more inclusive and thoughtful. I, for one, believe that history has to try to produce some kind of narrative (for how else could we process history if not in some sort of narrative?) that is as accurate as possible. But I do understand the difficulties and pitfalls that plague the work of historians, no matter how well-intentioned.

    For instance, it is also possible to say, as you do, that racial relations didn’t simply improve more or less linearly as time went by — in fact, they went backwards for a while. But there is a geographic dimension to this: if I’m not mistaken, most of the post-Reconstruction losses occurred in the South, while in the North the position of Blacks remained stable or even improved slightly. (Or am I wrong? I freely admit not to be a specialist in American history.) So you might see those events as a clash between Northern and Southern culture, the former slowly oozing southwards, and the latter trying to keep it out of its territory. ‘Slowly’ is the word here, since the North, for quite a while, turned a blind eye to the South’s efforts to keep their Blacks under control, as long as Southerners were not too brazen about it.

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      To make a long story short, Reconstruction wasn’t going to well under Johnson, who took over for Lincoln. Johnson turned out to be a complete ass who got himself impeached. When Grant got elected, he went and put down the Klan and various other terrorist groups, and that’s when you started having black politicians(in some cases former slaves) winning seats in local legislatures and other political bodies.

      Reply

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