Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The social welfare state we all missed out on ...

It's not hard to get hold of a version of W.E. B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. In addition to the print paperback, there is also an audiobook, a Kindle edition, and even a free .pdf file. Reading the book is another matter. This is a 729 page tome, packed with contemporary speeches, accounts of obscure legislative maneuvering, and demographic statistics. Think of the sort of intricate story some future historian with a determination to omit nothing might produce about U.S. health policy debates from 2007 to perhaps 2020. The result is dense and a little daunting.

And yet, Black Reconstruction is one of the essential texts about our national history and perhaps the essential text for understanding the enduring, never-completed democratic (small "d") struggle against racial caste and white supremacy. Writing in 1935, DuBois upended historical accounts of the post-Civil War period which had been dominated by apologists for southern Jim Crow rule, putting Black freed-people at the center of their own story. This was not easy; as a Black scholar located at Emory University in Atlanta, DuBois was not even allowed into many archives because his skin was the wrong color. But he persisted ...

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only ended the legal bondage of slaves held within Confederate (Southern) territories that the Union (North) had not yet conquered. That is, it is a war measure designed to encourage slaves to down their tools and run away, crippling the Southern economy. This they did -- and, as Lincoln had hoped, many enlisted and fought bravely for the Union army. Without this movement, what DuBois calls a strike, there would have been no Union victory.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves were very evidently leaving their masters' homes and plantations. They did not wreak vengeance on unprotected women. They found an easier, more decent and more effective way to freedom. Men go wild and fight for freedom with bestial ferocity when they must -- where there is no other way; but human nature does not deliberately choose blood -- at least not black human nature.

... this was the proof of manhood required of the Negro. ...He was called a coward and fool when he protected the women and children of his master. But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and a brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro as a fighter. ... How extraordinary, and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.

And so, once the Confederate insurrection was put down, what was to be done about the four million Black former slaves set free without means of support? In DuBois telling, we are reminded that the freed people knew quite clearly what they wanted:

... these black folks wanted two things -- first, land which they could own and work for their own crops.... then, in addition to that they waned to know; they wanted to be ale to interpret the cabalistic letters and figures which were the key to more. They were consumed with curiosity at the meaning of the world. .. they were consumed with desire for schools. ... Free, then, with a desire for land and a frenzy for schools, the Negro lurched into the new day.

The rest of the book is DuBois' narrative of the intricate struggle between the many forces at play in post-bellum South and the industrializing North, principally free black labor, free white labor often newly-immigrated, southern planters who had lost their human possessions but kept the legal right to most of the land, and Northern capitalist industry which wanted to exploit the resources and labor of the entire nation. There were radical anti-slavery politicians who aimed to enact a generous vision of black (male) citizenship; many who saw opportunities for personal gain in this unstable situation; and plenty of vile white racists whose main aim was to re-subjugate Black people, South and North. On the one hand, the country came out of Reconstruction with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which, however incompletely, create the most democratic elements of a barely democratic citizenship and Constitution. On the other hand, the South succeeded in disenfranchising black people for generations and constituting itself as a bulwark against the more generous impulses of the popular will -- to this day.

For a short period along the way, roughly 1867-1873, while the old planter class remained out of power, in a few Southern states radical governments deriving their force from black voters and the presence of the occupying Union army, showed what might have been possible if the freed men had been able to keep the vote. Everywhere they founded public school systems (which endured after Reconstruction mainly for white children), founded teachers colleges (many of which still survive as "Historically Black Colleges and Universities"), built hospitals and mental health facilities (which the South quickly stopped paying for), subjected local law enforcement officials to popular control, and regulated the terms of labor. For a brief season, the rule of law applied to both black and white, largely equally. The enduring hope that Black citizens still place in government intervention for justice is an experiential residue of this period. Until the northern army withdrew and the Klu Klux Klan imposed white terror, the U.S. South was inventing the social welfare state we still lack!

If that part of the white South which had a vision of democracy and was willing to grant equality to Negroes of equal standing had been sustained long enough by a standing Federal police, democracy could have been established in the South. But brute force was allowed to use its unchecked power in the actions of the whites to destroy the possibility of democracy in the South, and thereby make the transition from democracy to plutocracy all the easier and more inevitable.

DuBois argues that the ins and outs of the struggle during Reconstruction set the parameters of the US state up to his time (and still do, I would say, though the Civil Rights era of the '50s and '60s changed some of the terrain of struggle.)

The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United State? If all labor, black as well as white, became free -- were given schools and the right to vote -- what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship and control; and how would property and privilege be protected? This was the great and primary question which was in the minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States... It still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches all races and nations. ... The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.

***
Black Reconstruction is not an easy read. I was glad I had studied some of the historical background, so I had a frame within which to put DuBois' insights. His writing style seems florid today and his unformed marxism is both unsubtle and unorthodox. He does not seem to know that there were any women in this epoch! But this a gargantuan effort at making sense of our country, well worth the effort.

I was lucky enough to read this book as part of a course offered by the Center for Political Education. Course materials are still online at the link.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

Another book to check out. (And here's to "florid" writing styles. Du Bois is well worth the effort.)

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