Four Stages of Pathological Race-Relations—the Last Being Fatal (Part II)

In Part I, I didn’t actually get around to identifying the first of the four pathological stages of race relations.  It was implicit, however, in my definitions.  The touchpoint for the first stage is economic competition: too many people scrambling for too few jobs.  If the rivals break down into easily distinguishable groups—and especially if one of these groups has enjoyed a long run of full employment in a given sector, only to be “invaded” suddenly by Johnny-come-lately outsiders—then you have the recipe for major racial friction.

This scenario would fit handily under my definition of bigotry.  If little overt bigotry existed against freedmen in the Northern states before the Civil War (and I confess to having made no particular study of the matter), this is simply because the industrial North as yet drew few such freedmen into mills and factories.  What training the latter brought with them from the South had been acquired on the farm; and, in any case, a layer of genuine racism would have prevented blacks from working in such close proximity with whites.  Racism as pure ignorance of the Other doesn’t necessarily have a prognosis as lethal as bigotry’s, believe it or not—and here I must ask that you buy into my definitions rather than embrace the clamor of popular culture.  Racism of the, “Dear God, they eat dogs and wear nose rings!” type (in other words), tends to wear away with time and exposure.  The early Mormons thought the rarely seen African specimen of humanity to be the devil’s brood.  Quakers, whose denomination was rather densely embedded in border states like Kentucky, were dedicated abolitionists.

Hence I tend to suppose that, while the North was no haven for freedmen, their greatest disadvantage there in antebellum days was perhaps a high-risk kind of exoticism.  I have many times cited the complacent response of Pennsylvania residents to Alexis de Tocqueville that no black man voting in one of their local elections would have returned home alive; and I’ve also frequently related Richard Robert O’Madden’s experience of returning from Mass at a black church in 1830’s New York only to see his black Catholic friend almost stoned to death in the streets for daring such hospitality.  These were not insignificant matters.  My purpose here, however, is to trace how race relations have degenerated to a point where they now threaten our survival as a democratic republic.  I can discern no staircase of causes from the chatter of Tocqueville’s racist informants or the prickliness of New York’s apartheid to our present plight.  Those conditions and the sentiments behind them were, in fact, a source whose waters quickly petered out under no influence more profound than time and custom.

No, the dominant, red-hot bigotry one would have observed in a Northern industrial center around 1850 was directed at the Irish.  The Potato Famines of the mid- and late-Forties (the blight attacked the potato for more than one season) pried perhaps two million Irish peasants from their homeland.  Not a few had their passage paid—one-way—by landlords eager to shift from tenantry to some more progressive form of agriculture; the same “incentive” distracted the British government from any attempt to extend adequate relief.  The new immigrants, then, arrived with spite at their heels and spite in their faces.  They would do practically any work for any wage under any conditions.  To more settled Americans, they might as well have been animals—as, indeed, they were portrayed by the popular press.  The original “apeman” in our popular culture was not a black freedman but an Irish Paddy.  To be sure, he was genetically Caucasian; but his dress and grooming (or sad lack thereof) set him distinctly apart from third- or fourth-generation American laborers of English and German extraction still somewhat molded by a Puritan ethic, and his Gaelic gibberish leaked into a broken, thickly accented English that left him almost as identifiable as a dark epidermis would have done.

I see little evidence that the educational establishment spends much time laying before our children the complexities of bigotry in our national past.  On the contrary, the North is a beacon of justice and equality, while only in the South does one find one race despising another because of superficial traits.  This isn’t the occasion to analyze the various roles played by slaves in the lives of their owners; but the plantation owner with hundreds of wretched souls to grind beneath his autocratic boot is, of course, a further caricature that captures little of Southern reality.  And to the present point… even the most sadistic masters (they indeed existed, though in statistically tiny numbers) did not loathe their “possessions” as competitors after a livelihood.  They viewed them and treated them, in the worst cases, as sub-human—but were also capable of tending to their needs as they tended to their horses and hunting dogs.  A variety of cognitive consonance surely works within such inhumanity: you can’t treat people like animals and sleep at night, that is to say, unless you convince yourself that they are so.  Again, this sort of “philosophy”, hideous though it is, tends to have a brief shelf-life.  As an explanation for the rumbling racial powderkeg upon which we sit in the twenty-first century, it’s ludicrously inept; yet it receives endless attention in our classrooms in that very capacity, while the parallel racism of the North is airbrushed from the record.

And in the matter of suppressed history, it is perhaps worth a passing mention that the Spanish ruling class adopted this superior posture toward African slaves in the Caribbean—with a vengeance.  (O’Madden’s commentary upon the flagrantly illegal, fabulously profitable slave market in Havana during his ambassadorship turns the stomach.)  Yet Spain is excoriated in academe only for her treatment of native populations in Central and South America; and when the genetic and intellectual heirs of the conquistadors nesting in plush Cuernavaca send their racially mingled masses northward to release pressure from a disastrous economy, we who protest are branded “racist against Hispanics”.  If such a thing as an “Hispanic race” exists, it certainly wouldn’t be represented genetically by most of the migrants, refugees, and adventurers straying into our territory!

Back to bigotry and Stage One: African Americans would “graduate” to being recipients of genuine bigotry after Emancipation, when white manual laborers were now locked in a mortal struggle with them for very limited employ throughout the ravaged South.  It was the more benign sort of racist aristocrat (exemplified in Part I by my beloved but thoroughly Southern grandmother) who sought to intervene between the two groups.  Legendary Confederate guerilla leader John Mosby (my grandmother’s distant cousin) even campaigned on behalf of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential bid shortly after the surrender, realizing that the alternative to making peace with the Union was a descent into base anarchy.  Many of those statues being hauled down by mobs of semi-literate, self-righteous vandals today were dedicated to just such mediators.  The rioters have in fact reduced themselves to the temperamental level of the Ku Klux Klan, a force whose influence would eventually strangle that of the peacemakers by the century’s turn.

And as the tormented twentieth century grew from a homicidal infancy to a genocidal adolescence, blacks naturally decided to stream from the South into Northern industrial cities like Chicago and Detroit—where they were treated to the reception given to the Irish masses about a century earlier.  How many young college graduates today have heard of Detroit’s white-on-black race riots—not those of 1967, but those of 1943, when northward-shifted blacks eager to participate in the ramped-up war economy were beaten down by 6,000 National Guard troops? How many college graduates have heard of those times? One in a thousand?  Of course not.  One in a hundred thousand?  Just maybe… but not likely.

Such is Stage One.  You hate anyone who makes your survival more difficult (the way, for instance, that I hate my nation’s government as I try to live in retirement: a story for another day).  You can grow paranoid hating everyone who casts a shadow at either elbow, however: misery loves company, and we have a natural attraction to those suffering through a similar predicament.  If we can therefore find neighbors who share in our affliction and dress, speak, and look as we do, we feel that we have allies in the cause.  It’s “us versus them”; and if “they” happen to have red hair or dark skin to go with their odd accent or patois, so much the easier to rally round the flag.

Of course, the minority thus targeted seems bound to sense and respond to the same self-preservative pressures.  One can well imagine how black people would come do dislike white people in such an economic melee… yet, historically, I haven’t found that to happen at this point.  I don’t entirely understand why.  Perhaps direct experience of being on the bottom makes one more sympathetic to the panic of those who feel themselves slipping to the bottom.  In any case, the whipping up of minority antagonism against the oppressive majority appears actually to occur somewhat after—even long after—the majority has ceased to be significantly oppressive.  We’ll observe that toxic fruit starting to blossom at a later stage.

Author: nilnoviblog

I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Latin/Greek) but have not navigated academe very successfully for the past thirty years. This is owed partly to my non-PC place of origin (Texas), but probably more to my conviction--along with the ancients--that human nature is immutable, and my further conviction--along with Stoics and true Christians-- that we have a natural calling to surmount our nature. Or maybe I just don't play office politics well. I'm much looking forward to impending retirement, when I can tend to my orchards and perhaps market the secrets of Dead Ball hitting that I've excavated. No, there's nothing new (nil novi) under the sun... but what a huge amount has been forgotten, in baseball and elsewhere!

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