Given recent events, the title of this post may sound somewhat offensive. I point out from the outset that “decline” does not mean “end”; and what follows makes it clear that anti-Black racism is something which is deeply rooted in American history. In fact, it is among the phenomena which have most “made” America’s history. I will even venture to say that the history of the United States owes its major watersheds to anti-Black racism, in spite of the relevance of major factors such as the Conquest of the West, or industrialization.
But that is precisely why it makes sense to speak of a decline of anti-Black racism in the United States.
Like most modern nations, the US were born from a revolution, or at least so they say. “Officially,” their founding act dates back to 1776, the year in which was adopted a written constitution which was mythicized in a manner of fundamentalist devotion stoked in national culture. Seen closely, America’s constitutional fundamentalism does not come from the fact that the text is its founding act, but from the fact that it has never changed since it was adopted. This is a rather strange fact, but the Americans – at least, their national discourse – claim that such is the case owing to the unique and genius quality of the constitution, and the superhuman intelligence of its writers, the Founding Fathers. In truth, like with any contingent human creation, this text and the institutions that it spawned are full of faults and aberrations. I actually do not quite know of a top judicial institution that is of as poor quality as the US Supreme Court, with its judges appointed for life by a partisan executive power and its unaccountability of a wizards’ panel. But the fact of the matter is that constitutions do not change because it was realized they are bad or unsuited to modern circumstances. They change only under duress, following a revolution or a military defeat. The contrast, in Europe, between France and Great-Britain is a good illustration of this fact. Within France’s domestic history, the Third Republic survived the first world war because France had won that one, but June 1940 wiped it out, just as the Algerian war did with the Fourth Republic constitution. If the US and UK have kept their constitutions, with all their defects and the polarized political life (marked by a frozen system of two dominant parties) that they induce, that’s only because these two countries did not profit, as it were, from a revolutionary purge or a cataclysmic defeat.
To return to the point, there’s also a tradition that puts the birth of the US at the time when the first English colonists arrived in the land, in the era of Elizabeth I (second half of the 16th century); and in that view, the relevant founding act would be the kind of pact of self-government which the Mayflower Pilgrims adopted in 1620. But for some months now, the New York Times has been running a series of articles and essays in the framework of an editorial project entitled the 1619 Project. 1619 is the year when the first African captives were disembarked on what will later become US soil, and the promoters of this project claim that this was the true birthdate of the US. The idea behind this is that, if the American revolutionary project is indeed the establishing of a democratic nation, then that project could find its starting point only in 1619, because 1619 is the year when the US fell, by anticipation as it were, into the tyranny of slavery, into racial despotism, so much so that the national liberation struggle could begin only then – given that racial despotism prevents the US from fulfilling their democratic destiny. In that regard, 1776, with its reassertion of racial slavery, was not a national American revolution, it was at best a White ethnic revolution. The analysis is fair but faulty insofar as it subscribes to a vision of national romance. It is an attempt at integrating the Blacks in the progressive national romance, even to consider them as the true heralds of that national romance. The problem, here, is that there is no national romance, because there’s always more than one national project, and the history of a nation needs to be understood more as epic history (a confrontation between incompatible forces which are convinced, each one of them, that right is forever on their side, just like the Greeks and Trojans in the Iliad) than as ethical history (a confrontation between Good and Evil, with the ultimate fact being, as was asserted by Martin Luther King Jr., that “the arc of moral universe is long but bends toward justice.”)
If I were to give a sketch of America’s national history post-1776, I’d point out that it knew four turning points, all of them determined by the “Black question” (and because of that, in a world were objectivity would conquer our little sentimental preferences, the year 1619 would indeed be considered the one which most define the beginnings of America). Here are the four watersheds:
1776-1865: the era of the ethnic revolution of 1776, marked by the emancipation in terms of rights and opportunities of all peoples who could be defined as of the White ethnicity or race, the sub-humanization of Blacks under the system of chattel slavery in the South, and in the North, the establishment, against them, of diffuse informal restrictions that are a prelude to late 20th century “institutional racism.” In this period, racism as faith developed, i.e., racism as belief system, as culture. This cultural racism was already in place as early as the 17th century, but now, it was being sanctified by the novel national order, i.e., by laws and constitution. Opposition to this racism also relied on cultural resources, starting the American tradition of the “culture wars.” An example of a cultural success of the opponents of the culture of racism in this “culture wars” is the national and international impact of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The man who murdered President Lincoln, Booth, was a racial fanatic, not unlike, in the shape of his ideological extremism, the religious fanatics who killed, in France, kings Henry III and Henry IV. He saw himself as the defender of White freedom and happiness, which were impossible in his mind without Black servitude, a servitude which, in his belief system, was an element in the eternal order of the universe as willed by Almighty God. Lincoln, in spite of his own flaws (he was not totally impervious to the culture of racism), has been very close to bringing about a liberal-humanist American revolution against the narrowly ethnocratic aspects of 1776. Not for nothing that it is his statue that sits on Capitol Hill, not that of George Washington. Maybe he would have succeeded, if, having dodged Booth’s bullet, he had gone on to secure a second term.
1865-1914: In this period, the anti-racist radicals (Black and White) who were the revolutionary reserve army on whom Lincoln could have counted in an effort to reorient American history in the direction of democracy, were defeated by the defenders of racist culture, because the new elected leaders prized a reconciliation between North and South more than a revolutionary transformation of the country. The era therefore saw the emergence of a racist consensus. This did not imply that all participants were racist, but that the guardians of the culture of racism secured political and social guarantees against the legal emancipation of Blacks. In the previous stage, Blacks were in their majority chattel slaves and there was no need to erect against them a combined apparatus of sociopolitical repression grounded in a consensual doctrine: the slave’s yoke, sanctified by the order of society, the rule of law and the organization of the economy, was the doctrine. But now that the Blacks had climbed to a plane where they were able to demand the same rights as Whites, it proved necessary to mobilize those forces which were able and willing to maintain and promote Aryan supremacy (that’s the language of the time). Thus, the modern apparatus of racial despotism was built, and it will remain a component part of the American regime until the mid-1960s. At that time, the culture of racism was also strengthened by the emergence, in the West, of the theories of scientific racism and the doctrine of social Darwinism, which all served in the justification of the conquest of the tropical regions of the world by Western powers. The system of thought that came out of this tended, in the US, to counter Black emancipation with methods of reducing Blacks to a status equal to that of the colonized peoples of the Tropics (one hears a lot about the lynching which was then practiced on African Americans, but a similar violence was equally wantonly meted out in Africa by the agents of colonialism in that period. In 1904, intoxicated White men in Brazzaville introduced a dynamite stick in the rectum of a Black boy and blew him up in celebration of Bastille Day, and they cut off the head of another Black man, boiled it, and forced his friends and relatives to taste the resulting broth. An investigation commissioned following the outcry caused by press reports started to uncover such a large number of similar atrocities, and worse, that it was quickly scuttled and aborted). More than the previous era, and despite the liberal order that was put in place across the country (and that unfortunately proved compatible with racial despotism), this was the golden age of the culture of racism, which climaxed into the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the Southern man who had The Birth of a Nation, a movie manifesto for the racist reconciliation between South and North, shown at the White House.
1918-1968: this was a continuation of the previous era, marked by the routinization of racial despotism, now clearly stronger than democracy. The period may be split into two parts: before 1939, and after 1945. Before the Hitlerian war, it was marked by the emergence, within the culture of racism, of a panic over the notion that Aryan supremacy could no longer be preserved, because the Aryan race was a minority on the planet among the various kinds of “negroes” (the term had become sufficiently generic that it was applied to Arabs, Filipinos, Chinese, etc.) This fear was not unlike the antisemitic panic which existed in Germany in the 1920s, a panic that is still not very well documented, and that explains much about the adherence of the German population to the ideas of the Nazis (W. E. B. Du Bois, who had visited Nazi Germany, was struck by the fact that there was little anti-Black racism in its population – he was not, here, referring to the Nazis as such – which, however, harbored an antisemitism that he found very comparable to the anti-Black racism of America’s Whites: the Jews, he found, were the Blacks of Germany). Regarding Blacks, there was “hope,” in the previous era, that they were, as a race, so weak biologically and so flawed mentally that they were not going to be able to sustain themselves in conditions of freedom, and they were fated to “gradual extinction” (a thesis defended, in 1896, in a work published by statistician Frederick Hoffman with resounding success, Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro). But in this period, it transpired that not only were the Blacks not on the “downward grade” toward extinction which Hoffman deducted from his very defective computations (W. E. B. Du Bois had roundly refuted him some months after the publication of his book), but they even had the gall of starting on a path to prosperity. In 1921, a White mob army attacked America’s wealthiest Black agglomeration, Greenwood, the Black neighborhood of Tulsa, known as the “Black Wall Street,” and destroyed it completely in twelve hours, even using private aircrafts to drop firebombs on it. In passing, when he speaks of making America great again, Donald Trump is referring (perhaps without knowing it exactly) to the 1920s, a time when racial panic had generated renewed violence against Blacks, imposed severe restrictions on immigration from non “Aryan” populations, and when the domination which the US had newly acquired upon world capitalism went along with the unwillingness to support international institutions capable of regulating or limiting the foreign policy of nations, or even of inviting themselves into their domestic affairs (for instance, how racial minority or working class people were treated). Those who surmise that the blessed age of Trump’s dreams is the 1950s – those 1950s when, after all, the Cold War had impelled the US to organize a cosmetic multilateralism under their aegis (“the free world”) – are wrong through and through. After the Great Depression and World War II, the discourse of the preservation of the Aryan race appeared rather inappropriate. Racial militancy was therefore tempered somewhat, but not to the extent that the apparatus of racial despotism would be dismantled. If the Germans were no longer allowed to persecute the Jews, the Americans could continue to persecute the Blacks. The status quo of racial despotism mixed with democracy in a specie of sociopolitical monstrosity, carried on unimpeded.
1968-to date. 1965 and 1968 are the years when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, the two persons who, each in his own way, had tried to restart the American revolution in its progressive, democratic, and socialist orientations. The idea was not just to end racial despotism (the struggle to which the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr., in particular, are wrongly reduced), but the civilization of America through the destruction of the materialism and militarism that had turned into its second nature, and in which the evil for which it has shown great propensity (racial despotism, but also imperialistic aggressions, social injustices, etc.) found its roots. In sum, Martin Luther King Jr. had concocted a civilizing mission for a barbarous America, and was not actually very optimistic about success. The work of M. L. K., of Malcolm X, of even more radical wings of this revolutionary movement (Black Panthers) succeeded in toppling the apparatus of racial despotism, but not in transforming America. In M. L. K.’s analysis, barring such a transformation of America, racial despotism was sure to sneak back in. Indeed, as early as the Nixon presidency, and even more, under Reagan, it returned in the guise of “institutional” or “systemic racism.” Not a formal kind of despotism, rooted in lawmaking and supported by the constitution through the decrees and rulings of courts of law and the Supreme Court, but oppression that suffused administrative and democratic routines through infra-legal practices (police brutality is part of this) and the collusion, sometimes forced, often voluntary, between authorities (elected and appointed) in the persecution of Blacks (persecution presented under attractive names, such as “War on Drugs” and others). The MLKian subversion did however result in an effective divorce between democracy and racial despotism. For instance, from then on, and even though the thing was unimaginable for a mentality of 1968, a Black man entering the White House as president became a real possibility. Of course, reading history from the other side of the fence, in racist America, that subversion was a defeat that called for revenge, just like had been Black emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Thus, in the same way that, to Lincoln’s assassination responded the assassination of M. L. K. (even though there was also a murdered president, John Kennedy, it was M. L. K.’s leadership which was revolutionary in the 1960s), to the racist consensus of 1865-1914 responded this institutional racism. And of course, Trump’s presidency is, in this order of things, a renewed attempt to – as had chanted participants in the “Tea Party” conglomerate under President Obama – “take back our country.” But the fact of the matter is that, in the course of the 2010s, the MLKian ideals of a democratic, socialist and anti-racist civilization had regained strength, not so much among Blacks (where they had been a majority ideology all along) as among a good deal of the White population, especially the youth. That is what is shown, for instance, in the political success of Bernie Sanders or the cohort of young representatives (women for the most) of radical socialist tendency who had entered the House of Representatives in the last congressional elections. The mass participation of Whites in the protest movements that followed the murder of George Floyd is not only a response to the particularly horrible way the thing happened and was captured on film, but also a reaction from this MLKian climate that cohabitates in a rather explosive way with the fascistic presidency of Donald Trump.
So then how can one speak of a “decline of racism”? Isn’t this once more evidence of the diabolical resilience of the Beast? Certainly. Yet, the brief shortcut account of American history supplied above can be read, very justifiably, as a history of the decline of anti-Black racism, in spite of its persistence, and as intolerable as that persistence is. In the aftermath of the destruction of Greenwood, in 1921, with 1500 homes burned down, over 300 dead, and about 10 000 who found themselves homeless, no one was prosecuted or charged. Compare with the response to George Floyd’s murder today. It is sad and frankly exhausting that Black people should still and always be on a war footing, and live in bitterness and danger in a country which has, more than anyone else, the material means to solve its problems. And yet, progress has occurred, despite all. Moreover, in two or three generations, it is very likely, if current statistics are to be trusted (with more reason than Frederick Hoffman), that White people will grow into a minority section of US population. Impacts on culture and on the sociopolitical order of the nation are difficult to assess from this distance in time, but one can affirm without much fear of being wrong that racism, even if it survives, will lose its importance as a maker of history; and that America’s national career, if it continues (for it is possible that the nation-state form itself would go away, which would bring an even more radical solution to the question), will build on something more decent to bring about its future historic watersheds.
Moreover, Liam Rosenior may be right when he suggests in this column that the combination between an openly racist and fascistic Trump presidency and the straw that broke the camel’s back of Floyd’s killing could hopefully be an “accelerator” of history.