Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Construction of Whiteness
August 25, 2014 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Gerald Horne is the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He is a prolific author whose most recent book is The Counter-Revolution of 1776: : Slave Resistance & the Origins of the United States of America (published by NYU Press; available on Google Books). From the publisher's description:
The so-called Revolutionary War, Horne writes, was in large part a counter-revolution, a conservative movement that the founding fathers fought in order to preserve their liberty to enslave others—and which today takes the form of a racialized conservatism and a persistent racism targeting the descendants of the enslaved.
Early in the book, Horne writes:
The construction of 'whiteness' or the forging of bonds between and among European settlers across class, gender, ethnic, and religious lines was a concrete response to the real dangers faced by all of these migrants in the face of often violent rebellions from enslaved Africans and their indigenous comrades.
He recently sat down with Paul Jay of the Real News Network for the show Reality Asserts Itself. The result is a far-ranging discussion that covers his youth growing up in Jim Crow era St. Louis, his personal and intellectual development, pre-revolutionary America and the lucrative business of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Civil rights movement. The interview concludes by bringing us back to recent events, including the recent chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

Six parts, approximately 120 minutes total running time. All excerpts below are the words of Gerald Horne, taken from the show transcripts.

The Price of NAACP Compromise was Too High (1/6)
"As you know, during the 1960's, the United States was under a lot of pressure with regard to its Jim Crow practices, because it professed to be this paragon of civil rights virtue in the battle with the former Soviet Union, and so there was pressure to desegregate, and it was under those conditions that I got admitted to Princeton University, an Ivy League School. And I think when you go to an Ivy League school in the 1960's, being black, I think it can either cause you to want to join the US ruling elite, or to rebel against the US ruling elite. And I fell into the second category."
The Black Scare and the Democratic Party (2/6)
"I mentioned in the final pages of my 1776 book that in the pivotal and illustrative 1991 election for governor in Louisiana, 55 percent of white Americans voted for a Nazi, David Duke, a Nazi and a Klansman, for governor. So you have the structural problem whereby the Democrats find it difficult to rely upon their base because when they rely upon their base, which is black voters, it leads to the black scare--many white voters find that intimidating across class lines. And so, therefore, what happens is the Democrats oftentimes are forced to attack their base, which is what Bill Clinton did. "
The Counter-Revolution of 1776 and the Construction of Whiteness (3/6)
"You have to realize that slavery was not a sideshow. There's evidence to suggest that slave voyages and slavery itself was one of the most lucrative enterprises ever devised in the brain of human beings, sometimes profits of 1,700 percent. As you know, living in North America, there are those today within a stone's throw of the studio who would sell their firstborn for a profit of 1,700 percent, let alone an African they did not know."
White Unity and American Propaganda History (4/6)
"And it seems to me that this is part of the uniqueness of the U.S.A., which is that the boundaries of whiteness have been elasticized. That is to say that it's not just those from the British Isles who became white when they crossed the Atlantic. It's not just that those who were warring on the shores of Europe--English versus Irish, English versus Scots, Germans versus British, etc.--somehow they're magically transformed into being unitary white when they cross the Atlantic. It's not just that those with roots from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains in Russia were defined as white once they crossed the Atlantic. It's the fact that even, say, Steve Jobs of Apple, who was of Syrian descent; Victor Atiyeh, the former, just recently deceased governor of Oregon, of Syrian descent; Ralph Nader, of Lebanese descent; Marlo Thomas, the entertainer, of Lebanese descent. So the boundaries of whiteness were expanded, which obviously helps to bolster the settler project, because you can draw upon so many different individuals to come to these shores. And that was needed, because in so many different precincts and districts, not least in the South, the European settlers were outnumbered by the Africans and the indigenous population. "
Abolition of Slavery was Not a Fight Against Racism (5/6)
Speaking of the British burning Washington, DC during the War of 1812: "... in an early form of reparations for enslavement, they [the British] were joined by enslaved Africans in Washington, D.C., who were stealing dishes and the silver, etc., as the five foot four inch bookish president, James Madison, fled into the streets of Washington with his gregarious spouse, Dolly, in tow, one step ahead of the posse, that is to say, the Negroes fleeing after them trying to catch them and exact some revenge. I don't think it's going to be marked in United States, although it's a heroic episode in black history."
"I Can't Breathe" (6/6)
"'[Eric Garner was] choked to death with an illegal chokehold. And his last words, captured on videotape, are something of a coda, it seems to me, for black America. In other words, his last words were, 'I can't breathe.' That's what he was saying as he was choking to death. And as I watched that videotape, it was like this enormous metaphor for the black condition in North America stretching back centuries, the suffocation, the cry of despair, the cry of horror, 'I can't breathe.' "
posted by mondo dentro (14 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
"...president, James Madison, fled into the streets of Washington with his gregarious spouse, Dolly, in tow, one step ahead of the posse, that is to say, the Negroes fleeing after them trying to catch them and exact some revenge. "

I assume this is embellishment since Madison had fled D.C. well before Dolly hitched up her dress and made a run for it.

"HORNE: Well, U.S. historians today generally argue that despite these, quote, problems you've just articulated, slavery remained profitable up to the time it was abolished in the United States in 1865. "

It's always been my impression that slavery in the South was actually becoming less and less valuable, particularly in the Upper South, such as Tennessee, Virginia, and so on. Virginia actually had a vote on an emancipation program around 1828 or so, which while defeated, was not a lopsided vote against the freeing of slaves.

It's an interesting perspective on the creation of "whiteness" which has been an elastic band, based on a shared fear of uprising slaves, but it doesn't really makes sense with post-slavery immigration to the United States, be it the 1890s up through the modern era (he drops recent figures, such as Steve Jobs, for example, Middle Eastern backgrounds as being accepted into whiteness).

While there were definitely strong ties in the northern colonies to the economics of slavery, I don't think the business interests of John Hancock or the value of clients to John Adams are sufficient enough to broadly sweep the northern colonies as participating in the Revolution purely for the right to continue business in slavery. Likewise, while I don't think its addressed in the transcripts I read (kudos for the transcripts), what about the slave holding islands in the Caribbean? Why didn't they join with the American Colonies to further preserve their even more valuable stake in slavery?

I can accept the argument while applied to the Southern States, but definitely, the writings of the Founding Fathers at the time of revolution are not nearly as clear as many of the writings of the slave states at the outset of the Civil War, such as South Carolina's Succession document. Slavery is referenced as best as part of the abstract liberty of property ownership.

The theory is interesting that he's arguing, but at no point in my reading of histories of the American Revolution, have I ever seen slavery proposed as the defining argument as to why the colonies sought freedom from the British government. Either because it really isn't, and Dr. Horne is inflating the matter, or it is, and the established body of works have chosen to ignore it because it makes the revolution reek. I wish I was more read to offer a better analysis.
posted by Atreides at 2:19 PM on August 25 [7 favorites]


Horne: “Well, U.S. historians today generally argue that despite these, quote, problems you've just articulated, slavery remained profitable up to the time it was abolished in the United States in 1865.”

Atreides: “It's always been my impression that slavery in the South was actually becoming less and less valuable, particularly in the Upper South, such as Tennessee, Virginia, and so on.”

Well – these things aren't contradictory, are they? A thing can become less profitable, to the point even of not being able any longer to support a massive and bloated infrastructure, and still be hugely profitable in themselves. Hence, the South could be collapsing economically to a great degree, and yet there were still plenty of people who saw continued slavery as being very much in their best interest.

This is a very interesting thesis Horne has. I'm going to have to spend some time digesting it. Thanks.
posted by koeselitz at 2:41 PM on August 25


Another one to add to the list in the part four paragraph is John H. Sununu, White House Chief of Staff under Bush the Elder, who embraces whiteness with gusto:
...the Hispanics are very entrepreneurial, and to their credit they probably have a better record of being entrepreneurs than some second and third and fourth-generation Americans...
posted by XMLicious at 2:44 PM on August 25


On the profitability of slavery, I was interested to note while reading through a side-by-side comparison of the contemporary U.S. and Confederate Constitutions that Flunkie linked to in a recent thread that the Confederacy maintained the ban on international trade of slaves, limiting it to the states and territories. (While enshrining and retrenching slavery itself to a great degree, of course.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:55 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


-Slave Trade Act 1807
-Slavery Abolition Act 1833
-Abolitionism in the United Kingdom
posted by kliuless at 3:09 PM on August 25


I have done quite a lot of reading on the revolutionary war period as part of genealogical research and in an effort to contextualize ancestors' lives.
Since some ancestors were slave owners as well, I've also done a fair bit of reading on slavery and yeah, I've read that slavery's popularity was on the wane economically around that time.

I've never seen this theory proposed and I think it's a reach. The cornerstone causes I've seen consistently are economic at root - reduction of tax burden, release from burdensome cost controls, and opening colonial ports to free trade are the biggies.
posted by disclaimer at 3:42 PM on August 25


If there's a better argument that we need a Commission on Truth and Reconciliation in this country, I'd like to hear it.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:43 PM on August 25 [3 favorites]


The Somerset verdict may well have been one factor behind the American Revolution: slaveowners were worried that it might be extended to abolish slavery in the Americas too. But I'm not sure it was the primary factor.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:16 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


y'all missed the more interesting part of this interview:
But in any case it's quite striking that if you look at black American leadership in the period before World War II, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, they all had contradictions between and amongst themselves, but to a greater or a lesser degree they were all pro-Tokyo. And many of them visited Japan, such as W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s, where he was lionized to degree. And as I'm going to talk about in this next book that I'm working on, Tokyo had flooded the zone, had sent agents into black American communities, beginning in the 1920s. You had all of these so-called pro-Tokyo fronts. Indeed, if you look at the history of the organization now known as the Nation of Islam, which, of course, has a strong base right here in Baltimore, if you look at its origins, in many ways it starts off as a pro-Tokyo organization, like so many. It hasn't fallen by the wayside like most of the rest of them. And indeed this concept that--I know you at this enterprise, you're into conscious hip hop--if you look at this concept of the Asiatic black man, which the Nation of Islam used to tell and some of the so-called conscious hip hop elements today in 2014 tell, it comes out of that period of the 1930s when the U.S. Negroes were saying, we're not African, we're Asians. You know, this was part of this pro-Tokyo orientation. And then, of course, if you look at Malcolm X's autobiography, in the middle of the autobiography he talks about when he's about to be conscripted. He goes to the draft board and talks about how he's pro-Tokyo. What he's expressing is this widespread idea that Japan had helped to seed amongst black Americans that Japan was the champion of the colored races, that if Japan defeated the United States, the U.S. Negroes would get a better deal. And I argue in a previous book and I plan to argue in this next book that this is part of the momentum that convinces the rulers in the United States that they need to do something about this problem, because it's inimical to national security to have this dispossessed population in great numbers on your shores that could be easily appealed to by foreign antagonists. And so, therefore, you begin this agonizing retreat from Jim Crow, try to create a black middle class that have a stake in the system, to use that term that was so prevalent not so long ago, and so that they would not be so susceptible to these foreign appeals. And to a degree, that's worked.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:12 AM on August 26 [6 favorites]


What I hate about his arguments aren't his arguments, it's this underlying personal confusion of whether there are tons of sources that support what he's arguing and I have just never come across them because they have been marginalized by history, or if he's just making these dramatic embellishments and extrapolations on relatively few sources.

Saying, I've never read or heard anything about X, isn't in any way a refutation of X, unless you happen to be very knowledgeable of the subject area that X is located within.

That said, the Japan chorus of "We're champions for the non-whites of the world!" is something that I am familiar with, and it definitely wouldn't surprise me if it resulted in Japanese/Black American interactions that were positive for the latter. That it lead to the powers that be deciding it was time to retreat from Jim Crow, that's another story.

(Incidentally, in Harry Turtledove's Alt History series based on a North America where the Confederacy won its independence, in the 20th Century, Marxists appeal to the Confederate Black Community to rise up as a 5th Column in a later conflict between the USA and CSA based on their terrible treatment in Confederate society at large.)
posted by Atreides at 7:17 AM on August 26 [3 favorites]


I'm glad to see a Gerald Horne FPP. I discovered him him a little while back and have linked to him om metafilter a few times. Gosh, the guy must write like three books a year. He makes a good argument that slavery would have ended far sooner and the colonies been better off generally had they lost the American Revolution.
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:23 AM on August 26


During the 1920s Japanese agents were sent to many countries with this message: we're going to help you get rid of the (white) people who've been exploiting you.

I was surprised, but not much, to hear that they also courted Americans this way. This tactic went over well in Burma and Indochina, Siam, and so on. These folks were still enjoying a growing sense of nationalism, and the budding hope of shucking off the yokes imposed by various colonial powers. Of course, the Imperial intent was to replace the European yoke with one from the Land of the Rising Sun, but that didn't become obvious until later.

Until around the 1920s the Japanese were our darlings. We had clubs, parties, fads, all with a Japan theme. Rich and upper middle-class women showed up at events wearing kimonos. This was all sort of spotty, of course, because our immigration policies had begun to shift, and we had to stem the headlong rush of Japan into 20th Century capitalism, when we realized that if they competed in the Asian market, we would lose money. So we took steps, and by the 30's Japan had to become a bit more proactive in order to realize the GEACPS.

I like the trend in Horne's argument--it appeals to my notions of clay feet on the founders, and son on--but I don't really believe the white culture ever had quite the homogeneity he claims. His argument about the profitability of the slave trade is compelling, though, and I believe that it (slave trading) played an important role in our history, beginning with our hero, Columbus. I also believe that white capitalists steered our ship of state during these formative years. Has anyone come up with an argument that indicates any change in this chain of command?

But successive waves of white immigrants were by no stretch of the imagination part of the white soup that Horne describes. I think an order was established, with white men at the top. Waves of immigrants provided successive layers to the castes, each one lower than the last, with the blacks always at the bottom, and the various flavors of Native Americans relegated to status of being merely theories (the Noble Red Man, the stinking savage).

Horne's notion that white people were invented in America rings true. It's just the "white stew" characterization that doesn't quite work for me. I see whites being employed by their masters in a descending order of responsibility, according the caste to which they belong. The masters provide the whip, but the servile white provides the hand that wields it. In between, the consumers partake of their share of the fruits. In this analysis, the consumer is just another commodity, and social awareness is allowed to be bandied about, but any anti-capitalist ideas are not allowed to be employed.

Racism is rewarded, but not just with money. You get to be better than someone, even if your kids don't get schools and you have to wash your clothes in a bucket with creek water. You accept your place in the economic queue base on the false theory that you can do better. Oh, you can do better...you can get a better job, sometimes, and some people get a taste of the dream; but then there needs be someone to replace him at the oars of the galley, so to speak.

Racism: An economic tool; the foundations of Democracy in the New World. Good sub-title for the book.

Well, when I get rich and powerful I'm going to change things. Rainbow Stew for everybody!
posted by mule98J at 12:14 PM on August 26 [1 favorite]


And as I'm going to talk about in this next book that I'm working on, Tokyo had flooded the zone, had sent agents into black American communities, beginning in the 1920s. You had all of these so-called pro-Tokyo fronts.

I went in very interested but I left disappointed with his telescoping 60+ years of Japanese history into the "runup to WWII." It's very much contested whether or not Japan and the US were on a collision course from the 1890-1900s. What he called "Japan's attack on China" (I could have misheard, it's been a long day) in the 1890s was an attack on Korean soil, a fight with China over who got to control Korea. Japan didn't hack away at China until the end of the Sino Japanese war in 1895, and then really got going during WWI.

As for what he's saying about the African American-Japanese connection, there are already books on this topic in English as well as the links to other nationalist movements in the Muslim and South and East Asian world. Even Chinese and Koreans students in the period between 1895-1920 looked to Japan and went there if they could to study and get some radicalization.

A network of "Pro-Tokyo agents" in 1920 in the US seems an extraordinary claim. There wasn't any real conflict in 1920 with US, even on the horizon. Or rather, Japan wasn't thinking in those terms then. I cannot imagine what these agents would be up to. There were no ultra rightists Japanese then running around like there were in 1930s Manchuria. There might have been a few Japanese from the Christian Socialist movement or a few Japanese working with Sun Yat Sen. Or maybe he has found something new and important? It's hard to tell because his framework is so out of whack with the way that non-US historians engage this period.

The faults here are not his own. I blame the sub-discipline of US History that assumes historians can study the US in isolation and use other national histories, events, and peoples to prove a point about the US, as if national histories work in tandem with the US. They don't. US historians need to realize how rich and complex all these questions about citizenship were for political actors then and now... beyond America's borders. National history is a starting point but not the end point. So maybe he's looking at these relationships from the wrong direction, or just one.
posted by CtrlAltD at 7:33 PM on August 26 [5 favorites]


that if Japan defeated the United States, the U.S. Negroes would get a better deal... this is part of the momentum that convinces the rulers in the United States that they need to do something about this problem, because it's inimical to national security to have this dispossessed population in great numbers on your shores that could be easily appealed to by foreign antagonists. And so, therefore, you begin this agonizing retreat from Jim Crow, try to create a black middle class that have a stake in the system...

i'm reminded of Langston Hughes in the USSR: "Koestler asserts that the real reason the film wasn't made was that a political rapprochement had just begun between the USSR and the USA (which was the last of the great powers to recognize the revolutionary regime), and that one of the conditions the Americans set for recognition was that the USSR should cease its propaganda among American blacks. As a result, Hughes's film about black life in America was dropped 'overnight.' "

also btw...
-Langston Hughes in Central Asia
-China in Africa
posted by kliuless at 11:14 PM on August 29 [1 favorite]


« Older If your cryptography predates The Fresh Prince, yo...   |   On this day one hundred years ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments