Reconsidering racism

A water lilly at Frank Schwartz’s Water and Garden Creations

On Saturday I visited a water lily garden in southern Wake County.  The outing was organized by the Carolina Nature Photographers’ Association, and there were some nice people there who had good cameras.  Along with the lilies and other flowers, there was a little green frog.  

As regular readers of The Casual Blog know, from time to time I express myself on political subjects, but recently I’ve had some trouble doing so. There are so many issues worthy of closer examination and critical thought.  But that’s also the problem — it’s hard to know where to start.  Issues are proliferating. Before you’ve got one terrible problem in focus, there are two more even worse.  

You can wear yourself out with fear and outrage, while accomplishing nothing.   While it’s very easy to get depressed about the state of the union and various real world problems, that doesn’t help anything.  I’ve been trying to develop a perspective that’s connected to what we know of reality, but that isn’t hopeless.  Admittedly, it’s a challenge.

Lately my non-work long-form reading has been mostly history, which I find both calming and stimulating.  It helps to take a longer view.  Stories of tyrants, like the Roman emperors who were insane and murderously sadistic, are interesting in themselves, but also put our problems in a bit of perspective — that is, there have been worse heads of state.  

I used to think of history as facts collected in history textbooks that could be known with certainty.  It turns out, though, that history is far from fixed.  It changes.  Historians can be completely blind to aspects of their subjects which later historians bring to light.  It’s a safe bet that our vision also is clouded and incomplete.  But it’s capable of improvement.  

Alan Taylor’s latest book, American Revolutions, reframes the revolutionary war from one of united American colonists against England into a multifaceted and lengthy civil war with international aspects.  It was in significant part a war between groups of colonists, many of whom favored England and were uprooted, tortured, and killed for their loyalism.  It was in part a war to maintain slavery and to seize native American lands.  The level of blood and gore was high, and the level of idealism and integrity not as high as we thought.  

I’ve also been reading Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads:  A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day.  I came to the book with a vague idea that the islands of the Caribbean were useful as stopover points for explorers transiting the Atlantic in the age of sail.  It turns out that beginning in the sixteenth century and for hundreds of years, they were wildly successful in generating wealth for Europe.  The English considered their islands more valuable than the American colonies, and gave up those colonies in part because they thought it better to use their navy to defend the islands.  

Empire’s Crossroads tells the story of the development of hugely successful sugar plantations, which is also the story of the development of the African slave trade.  The extreme brutality of Caribbean slavery was not well understood in Europe at the time, and probably not well understood by many people today.  Gibson observes that slavery wasn’t caused by racism, but rather racism was created to justify slavery.      

It would be nice to think we’re over racism.  But we noticed quite a few Confederate flags when we were on the Outer Banks last week.  There are numerous reports from around the U.S. of displays of hangman’s nooses and swastikas.  New laws are limiting voting rights of minorities and freedom of movement of immigrants.  And of course, not all the violence is symbolic.  There seems to be a stream of racist attacks and murders, which are somehow recognized as “terrorism.”  

One good thing about the Trump presidency is that it has brought a virulent racist element of  America  into the light.  I’d thought it was almost gone, but now there’s no mistaking, it’s still there.  Encouraged by the regime, the racist minority has felt emboldened.  I suspect that explains in part Trump’s rise.  His rallies, with coded messages giving permission and encouragement to prejudices that had been held in check as shameful, sparked an enthusiasm that lots of us didn’t take seriously enough.  Now we know this racist minority are highly motivated, and they won’t give up their hateful ideology without a fight.  

But history can be inspiring.   Our ancestors, black, white, and other, finally, after hundreds of years, did away with legalized slavery.  They eventually ended the legalized racism of Jim Crow, and the housing regulations that prevented black people from buying houses in white neighborhoods. There are still living some who risked their lives in the struggle for voting rights for blacks and school desegregation.  We stand on the shoulders of moral giants, who pointed the way forward.  But there’s still some hard work to be done.