Reconstruction Era Race Relations

In Rebirth of a Nation, Jackson Lears captures a moment in history. The world we know was taking shape. But before any of that had yet fully taken hold, a different kind of experience was common and it is hard for us to imagine.

Most Americans in the nineteenth century were rural. They were mostly poor and living in small communities. In the South, this included blacks and whites living in close proximity and often working side by side. After the Civil War, most blacks remained in rural areas and continued farming. Many of them bought their own land and gained financial independence.

There wasn’t much conflict at the time. The KKK arose right after the Civil War and yet a few years later the federal government had destroyed it, not to be resurrected for another half century. There was remarkably little violence between blacks and whites. Rural black violence was almost non-existent. The main violence actually was among rural whites, but even that was rather limited. As for the cities, the fear about violence was focused on ethnic whites such as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans. The greatest perceived threat by the WASP upper classes were the waves of poor European immigrants, many of them Catholic and speaking foreign languages.

Before the last years of that century, there was no large-scale systematic persecution of blacks and even then it took decades to develop into all-out race war. Lynchings didn’t become a serious issue until the 1890s. And the Second Klan wasn’t established until 1915, not gaining prominence until the 1920s. For the decades immediately following the Civil War, race relations were doing quite well, considering slavery had ended not long before. Freed blacks sought lost family members, farmed their own land, built houses, educated their children, elected politicians, formed militias, and published newspapers.

Many whites at the time didn’t see this as a serious threat. People were just happy that the Civil War was over and that everyone could get back to living. The average white person wasn’t sad about the destruction of slavery and the aristocracy that once controlled it. Most whites were no better nor worse than they’d ever been. Life went on.

It was primarily the middle-to-upper class whites who were most bothered by the changes. The old plantation owners, of course, experienced great loss. But the social order had been challenged more broadly. It must be remembered that the Second Klan, like the one before it, wasn’t a populist movement. Most Klan members were professionals and other respectable people: businessmen, managers, ministers, judges, lawyers, police chiefs, etc. These were the same men who pushed for Jim Crow and re-enslavement through forced prison labor, with blacks regularly imprisoned on false charges.

Poor whites, on the other hand, had little to gain from any of this. Wealthy Southerners always looked down on poor whites. And the Second Klan targeted ethnic whites more than it did blacks. But the powerful were highly resourceful in turning the poor against each other. When Reconstruction ended with the removal of US military from the South, the ruling elite were quick to re-establish the racial order.

This coincided with the Gilded Age when the Robber Barons turned brutal. There was a new kind of equality where hundreds of thousands of American workers, both black and white, were violently oppressed and sometimes killed in labor conflict. Some groups like the Knights of Labor nationally organized across racial and ethnic divides (“By 1886 20% of all workers were affiliated with the KOL, ballooning to nearly 800,000 members.”~Wikipedia). But they were ultimately fighting a losing battle.

American society became fractured. And average Americans began to see each other as enemies, almost as a premonition of the ethno-nationalistic world wars to come. As always, in the ensuing conflict, minorities struggled the most and suffered the worst. Yet in that golden moment after the Civil War, the future looked bright for most Americans with a promise of continuing progress and betterment for all. There was nothing inevitable about that coming to an end. It didn’t die of natural causes. It was killed by a ruling elite fueled by greed and lust for power. Bigotry was just a convenient means to that end.

* * *

Rebirth of a Nation:
The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920
By Jackson Lears
pp. 92-93

One baking-hot Georgia afternoon in 1877, the Methodist minister Atticus Haygood took the Macon and Brunswick Railroad from Jesup to Macon and chanced upon a memorable scene. “The smoking car,” he recalled, “was packed full with a rare and racy, if not rich crowd of lumbermen,” returning home to Macon after delivering a load of timber to Brunswick. “We saw a very black negro and a fair-haired youth drinking alternately out of the same black-bottle,” Haygood wrote. “They sat promiscuously and drank, smoked, laughed, sang, whistled, and danced together. One young fellow knew the potent notes and they sang ‘fa, so, la’ while he beat time…. He sings a sort of wild tenor we used to hear at camp-meeting.” The scene typified the easy race-mixing that characterized everyday life in parts of the rural South into the 1880s. Hunting, fishing, cooking, shucking corn, tending to the sick and midwifing babies—all involved cooperation and sometimes camaraderie between the races.

Consider another scene, a country picnic at Pitman’s Mill. Georgia in 1896. A young boy named Mell Barrett was about to listen to an Edison talking machine for the first time. “With the tubes in my ears, the Pitchman was now adjusting the needle on the machine…. My excitement increased, my heart was pounding so I could hardly hold the tubes in my ears with my shaking hands…. ‘All Right Men, Bring Them Out. Let’s Hear What They Have to Say,’ were the first words I understood coming from a talking machine…. The sounds of shuffling feet, swearing men, rattle of chains, falling wood, brush, and fagots, then a voice—shrill, strident, angry, called out ‘Who will apply the torch?’ ‘I will,’ came a chorus of high-pitched, angry voices…[then] the crackle of flames as it ate its way into the dry tinder…My eyes and mouth were dry. I tried to wet my lips, but my tongue, too, was parched. Perspiration dried from my hands. I stood immobile.” What Mell Barrett heard was several black men being burned alive, after they had confessed at gunpoint to an interracial rape. It was one of hundreds of such lynchings that scarred many parts of the South between the late 1880s and the early 1900s—a mass ritual of racial revitalization through violence.

The difference between these two scenes underscores the transformation of race relations in the Gilded Age South. The earlier period was hardly an era of biracial harmony, characterized as it was by systematic white efforts to drive blacks from public life. Yet as the lumbermen’s frolic suggests, even after Reconstruction, as white Democrats returned to power, race relations remained fluid among the folk. By the 1890s, the fluidity was gone. Lynching was only the most brutal and sensational example of a concerted white effort to reassert absolute dominance by drawing the sharpest possible boundaries between the races. This effort was part of a campaign by the prosperous to purify the Southern body politic, rendering it fit for inclusion in the parade of economic progress. In sum, it was all too appropriate that the first sound young Mell Barrett heard from that modern marvel, the talking machine, was the baying of a lynch mob. Southern lynching in the 1890s, like the incandescent racism that spawned it, was a product of modernity.

To be sure, the consciousness of racial difference had existed for centuries, at least since the earliest European encounters with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the New World. But there was something profoundly different about the racism of the late nineteenth century—it was more self-conscious, more systematic, more determined to assert scientific legitimacy. The whole concept of race, never more than the flimsiest of cultural constructions, acquired unprecedented biological authority during the decades between Reconstruction and World War I.

Losing Hearts and Minds and Money

A book about the quagmire in Iraq came out a few years ago. It was written by Peter Van Buren, a former government official. It’s about the losing of hearts and minds and lots of money.

I haven’t read the book itself, but came across some discussion about it online. The supposed reconstruction of Iraq sounds like a key example of bureaucracy taking on a life of its own, where having the results looking good on paper became more important than ensuring actual results. Massive amounts of money were thrown around to make it look like something was being accomplished, with large numbers of troops there for almost a decade to help in the process.

Here is the book and some related stuff:

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
by Peter Van Buren (excerpt at Rolling Stone)

Murray Polner, Review of Peter Van Buren’s “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle For the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” (Metropolitan Books, 2011)

‘We Meant Well’: An Attempt To Rebuild Iraq (NPR audio)

“We Meant Well” by Peter Van Buren (Youtube video)

On a related note, there is a good Wikipedia article on the Withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

The popular support for the war evaporated and by 2007 most registered voters supported troop withdrawal. The U.S. government had been discussing withdrawal in the last years of the Bush administration with Congress making a decision for withdrawal in 2007 and Bush signing an agreement involving withdrawal in 2008, although Bush had already begun withdrawal in 2007.

Obama, once in office, followed Bush’s official agreement with the Iraqi government. It would have required Obama to break Bush’s agreement for him to have refused the already declared and agreed upon plans for and promises of troop withdrawal. The plans were already set in place and already being implemented before Obama took office. For him to have changed course would have meant not only breaking a formal international agreement but changing the then established US foreign policy toward Iraq that was based on troop withdrawal.

In a Reuters article by the above author, Peter Van Buren, this pessimistic conclusion was given:

As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that in almost nine years of trying, retrying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.

It failed the first time around — according to Van Buren, it was a failure early on because of lack of leadership, seemingly because of the false assumption by the Bush administration that all it takes to win a war is large numbers of troops and large piles of money. Power and wealth. There is no evidence that leadership has improved over time.

I would add that winning the Iraq War, in the traditional sense of winning, may never have been the purpose in the first place. Even leaving the country more stable might have always been irrelevant to whatever the agenda was in seeking to maintain hegemony in the Middle East. Maybe simply destabilizing the area was always the purpose, a common strategy by both the US and USSR during the Cold War.

Mission accomplished?

“Before the 1890s…”

I was reading from many books lately. My curious mind was flitting about, sampling various authors.

One thing that was on my mind was shame and honor, specifically as related to culture and social problems. That led me to look at a book I’ve had for a while, American Homicide by Randolph Roth, because it came up while doing web searches. The author, near the beginning of the book (Kindle Locations 222-225), encapsulates the difficulty of understanding violence. He writes that,

“Race and slavery are connected to America’s homicide problem, but not in a straightforward way. Before the 1890s, for example, African Americans were far less likely to kill than whites were, and especially unlikely to kill one another. Why, for the past century, has the opposite been the case? Why were Virginia and Maryland no more homicidal than Pennsylvania in the 1720s and 1730s, when they had more slaves and free blacks? Why did slave states become more homicidal after the Revolution, when free states became less homicidal?”

He simultaneously disproves the plausibility of the conservative argument that blames culture for everything and the neoreactionary argument that blames genetics for everything. These were changes happening within populations. The basic cultures and genetics of these populations didn’t likely change much over such short periods of times. Some other social dynamic was behind the increase of violence in some places and the decrease elsewhere.

Even I’m fond of some of the more interesting cultural hypotheses, but I’m always wary about the implications of taking them too much at face value. They can potentially offer insight. The danger is that they make for convenient just-so stories. They have a way of ending inquiry, instead of inspiring further questioning.

As for genetics, Roth doesn’t specifically discuss that in this book. He does, however, speak of specific populations. So, specific population genetics are indirectly involved. This book severely undermines the type of arguments one hears from human biodiversity advocates.

Also, the above passage would seem to even challenge the simpler accounts of social problems that come from the political left. The black population more than a century ago was more impoverished than the black population is today. On the other hand, those on the political left could rightly point out that economic inequality has increased as economic mobility has decreased. Blacks in the post-Civil War era had many reasons for feeling more hopeful than desperate. It seemed like their world was improving dramatically and quickly.

The full backlash was yet to come. Industrialization and urbanization was bringing benefits for most Americans, even poor minorities. De-industrialization and offshoring, suburbanization and ghettoization (followed by gentrification) was not even on the horizon. Blacks, immediately following Emancipation, acted like a people with a sense of realistic hope. The shame of centuries of enslavement had fallen away and for the first time a generation of free blacks were becoming a force in American society.

The 1890s, however, began a new era of racial oppression. It was the beginning of Jim Crow. Is it surprising that increased oppression led to increased desperation and hence violence? The entire society got more violent during that time. In fact, it was the most violent period in our country’s history.

It is interesting that the black population has yet to fully recover from what happened during Jim Crow. Before that time, blacks were becoming increasingly independent. They had formed their own communities and towns. They opened their own businesses, ran their own newspapers, and had their own schools. They elected their own local political officials.

Then the wrath of violence came down upon them. It wasn’t just lynchings. It included the theft of land and property, or else its destruction. Entire neighborhoods were burnt down. Entire populations were driven out of towns. Blacks were herded into inner cities.

In the relatively good times before the backlash, blacks showed that they were perfectly capable of having well functioning communities. Their violence rates were low. Their economic mobility was increasing. I’m willing to bet about everything was improving, from crime rates to marriage rates.

The twentieth century was a slow destruction of black communities. It was a slow destruction of their families and social capital. The early twentieth century began the rise of mass incarceration and the drug wars, and of course all of this was mostly directed at poor minorities.

Why do people act surprised that when communities, families, and lives are destroyed that people will become desperate and act in less than optimal ways? Neither culture nor genetics is needed to explain the increase of violence, and it indeed was an increase. It didn’t begin that way.