A few weeks ago, Alexander Saxton died, so I went and read his essay on blackface minstrelsy. You can read the complete paper here. I had heard of it, but never actually read it, and it was interesting.
So then I decided to read one of his books, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic. It contains a chapter that is basically the same content as the minstrelsy essay, and covers the political history of the 19th century USA with a focus on the importance of race, but each chapter can almost be read as a separate piece. It is not a history of racist ideas, but a political history of the USA, but the depressing fact is that racist ideas are integral to that history.
The book isn’t even exclusively about racism regarding Africans, despite the seismic disturbances caused by slavery in the early Union. No, the other race, the one that had to be exterminated, the Native Americans, is treated at length, and it is instructive to see how various parties sometimes took divergent views on the two. The Jacksonian Democrats wanted to liquidate the Indians to get their land, and restrict slavery, and blacks, to the South because they hated the planter aristocrats, and feared black labor competition. The Whigs, the upper-crust opposition to the Jacksonians, wanted to protect the Indians, all the while hoping they would gradually die off or assimilate, in order to have an excuse to limit slavery to the South. They were happy to have free blacks in the territories as they had no love for a labor monpoly by the Jacksonian producers. Besides, they were looking forward to industrialization, and they just wanted free labor, free to accept their wages.
Along the way, a lot of unsavory racial ideology is unearthed and associated with people you might not otherwise think of in the history of imperialism and racism, such as Walt Whitman:
Who believes that Whites and Blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen? Nature has set an impassable seal against it. Besides, is not American for the Whites? And is it not better so?
Editorial in The Eagle, 1858
Yes, the whole thing is quite sordid. After the Civil War, the northern Republicans went to town on their industrial program, and racism continued to serve handily, and was often employed by workingmen against one another. Meanwhile, heroes such as Teddy Roosevelt, took up the pseudo-science of race to justify imperialism abroad and oppression at home, although the negroes did do a fair job at San Juan Hill. And those Indians..? Now that they were almost all dead, it was time to wax sentimental about them to assuage one’s guilt at having helped along with their massacre. Thus, Teddy’s statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in NYC shows him mounted like a Roman emperor, aided by his noble and faithful servant, a red chieftain.
And through it all, the driving force of capital remaking our nation, then the world. Monuments such as the one of Teddy, dedicated in 1940, seem quaint now. There is no longer any desire, perhaps no need, to cement the image of heroic, white overlords. In the midst of our multi-cultural society, with its wide tolerance for racial and ethnic difference, the moving power of great wealth does not need to show its face, to justify itself at all! Abstract corporate art serves nicely. Human figures just arouse controversy.
Saxton refers to the 1890s as a hegemonic crisis, during which the ruling elite actually feared for, perhaps rightly so, their privileges. They had carried on so brutally as to foment a political counter attack. Now we have a political system that stages ‘debates’ that seem like grade-school reenactments of democracy. No public interaction – the audience is just for show. But the debate is the real show, displaying the importance and control of the corporate media.
Just by coincidence, as I was reading the book, I saw the obituary of another scholar of the slave societies, Eugene Genovese. The author of Roll , Jordan, Roll: The Lives the Slaves Made, repudiated his radicalism, and died a repentant and fully-fledged Catholic conservative.