IN THE NEWS #bigisms

In the News

Frederick Douglass’s Vision for a Reborn America
David Blight, December 2019, The Atlantic

“We are a country of all extremes, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world … In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name or number.”
— Frederick Douglass, 1869

In the late 1860s, Frederick Douglass, the fugitive slave turned prose poet of American democracy, toured the country spreading his most sanguine vision of a pluralist future of human equality in the recently re-United States. It is a vision worth revisiting at a time when the country seems once again to be a house divided over ethnicity and race, and over how to interpret our foundational creeds.

The Thirteenth Amendment (ending slavery) had been ratified, Congress had approved the Fourteenth Amendment (introducing birthright citizenship and the equal-protection clause), and Douglass was anticipating the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment (granting black men the right to vote) when he began delivering a speech titled “Our Composite Nationality” in 1869. He kept it in his oratorical repertoire at least through 1870. What the war-weary nation needed, he felt, was a powerful tribute to a cosmopolitan America—not just a repudiation of a divided and oppressive past but a commitment to a future union forged in emancipation and the Civil War. This nation would hold true to universal values and to the recognition that “a smile or a tear has no nationality. Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man.”

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The Electoral College’s Racist Origins
Wilfred Codrington III, November 17, 2019, The Atlantic



Is a color-blind political system possible under our Constitution? If it is, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 did little to help matters. While black people in America today are not experiencing 1950s levels of voter suppression, efforts to keep them and other citizens from participating in elections began within 24 hours of the Shelby County v. Holder ruling and have only increased since then.

In Shelby County’s oral argument, Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get them out through the normal political processes.” Ironically enough, there is some truth to an otherwise frighteningly numb claim. American elections have an acute history of racial entitlements—only they don’t privilege black Americans.

For centuries, white votes have gotten undue weight, as a result of innovations such as poll taxes and voter-ID laws and outright violence to discourage racial minorities from voting. (The point was obvious to anyone paying attention: As William F. Buckley argued in his essay “Why the South Must Prevail,” white Americans are “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally,” anywhere they are outnumbered because they are part of “the advanced race.”) But America’s institutions boosted white political power in less obvious ways, too, and the nation’s oldest structural racial entitlement program is one of its most consequential: the Electoral College.

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How the Fugitive Slave Act Paved the Way for the Civil War (audio)

November 8, 2019, Fresh Air

Terry Gross interviews Andrew Delbanco about his book The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves And The Struggle For America's Soul From The Revolution To The Civil War

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Andrew Delbanco, welcome to FRESH AIR. So slavery is not mentioned in the Constitution by name, but it's referred to twice, first in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3. Tell us what that clause is about.

ANDREW DELBANCO: So it's a clause in the Constitution that makes it clear that if a slave or, indeed, an indentured servant flees from the service or labor that person owes to his, quote, unquote, "owner" - flees to a state - to another state, the law requires that he be returned to that owner. It was an element of the Constitution without which, I think, it's really hard to imagine that the Constitution could have been formulated, that the country could have been formed because in a sense, this was really - these were really two countries that were putting themselves together into one, and they had to decide what to do about this border problem.

So I think of the fugitive slave clause as a kind of extradition treaty, that people in those states where slavery was clearly a fundamental part of the economy and culture could be secure in the knowledge that their - they wouldn't lose their property by that property taking up and moving to another state. It sounds all very abstract and impersonal and legalistic. But I think we have to face the fact that without that clause, it's very unlikely that the country would have been formed in the first place.

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James Baldwin: Living in Fire by Bill V Mullen review – a smart, concise introduction
14 November 2019, The Guardian

Houman Bareka reviews Bill V Mullen's James Baldwin: Living in Fire



Some biographies are weighty, definitive tomes that add substantially to the sum of human knowledge; others are brisker accounts that condense the existing record into a digestible narrative. This new biography of the African American novelist, critic and playwright James Baldwin falls squarely in the latter category, but is well worth a read. It examines the trajectory of Baldwin’s political thought on the interlocking questions of race, class and sexuality. At just under 200 pages, it is a smart and concise introduction to a writer whose trenchant insights into the nature of US politics and culture are as relevant today as they have ever been.

Bill V Mullen sees Baldwin as something of a reluctant radical. Though he associated with communists in his youth, and his analysis of the historical plight of African Americans drew from Marxist political economy (“we have been functioning … for 400 years as a source of cheap labour”), Baldwin had misgivings about the left. He noted with some bitterness that the discrimination routinely practised by many US trade unions made a mockery of the notion that black and white workers could find common cause in the labour movement. He had no truck with Soviet communism, advocating instead what Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, called a “Yankee Doodle type socialism”.

Baldwin’s early engagements with racial politics were similarly equivocal. He was sceptical about the Negritude movement of the 1950s, which sought to mobilise solidarity among the global African diaspora. Baldwin saw himself as a “bastard of the west”, shaped by his experience of western modernity; tethering himself to an imagined African identity would belie that reality. Likewise some of the rhetoric of black militancy – notably the racial separatism advocated by groups such as the Nation of Islam – jarred with him because it merely reproduced, in reverse, the logic of white supremacy.

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How racial segregation exacerbates flooding in Baton Rouge
William Horne, November 12, 2019, The Washington Post



The lives of Baton Rouge’s students, especially those who live in the city’s overwhelmingly African American north side, recently got more difficult and their opportunities more constrained with the secession of the city of St. George from the Parish of East Baton Rouge.

From Memphis to Maine, critics of struggling public schools have increasingly turned to this secession tactic to the detriment of disadvantaged students and their families. Proponents of the strategy have subdivided the nation’s patchwork of 13,000 school districts into an even more convoluted system of townships and municipalities to keep in-group resources within wealthier communities and poorer students out. Leaders of the movement claim they want to preserve the tax revenue from areas with higher property values for themselves and their children.

Because of America’s history of neighborhood and school segregation, the movement in many ways advances a new form of racial segregation that cripples public schools, especially those serving poor children of color. It also undermines municipal infrastructure and transportation systems and makes life more difficult for all residents. In south Louisiana, it even contributes to flooding.

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