The Overbearing Whiteness of Being
Jan. 6, 2021 wasn’t a new phenomenon in America; it has powerful historical antecedents deeply entrenched in the American psyche.
By Robert M. Herzog
The Jan. 6th Capitol assault was not unique in American history. Nor were its protagonists, the underlying issues it raised, the allegiance to falsehoods and racist white supremacy, and its implications for the heart of a United States of democracy.
In 1854, Kansas was a seething cauldron of discord over the issue of slavery. The state was granted the right to determine if it would allow slavery, as did neighboring Missouri, or forbid it. Lawrence, Kansas, was a center of anti-slavery opinion, founded by anti-slavery settlers. In proximity to pro-slave areas, it formed a prelude to the Civil War. A series of escalating clashes known as Bleeding Kansas, between irreconcilable viewpoints and the adherents that breathed life, and death, into them, turned Kansas into the most violent place in the country, leading to 56 deaths.
Thousands of armed non-resident pro-slavery men, out-of-state militias, mostly “Border Ruffians” from Missouri, flooded Kansas to influence local politics and the decision, seeking to overwhelm the clear popular sentiment to forbid slavery. They captured early local elections using fraud and intimidation, with pro-slavery results overturned when elections were overseen by Congress.
In 1856, pro-slaver settlers attacked Lawrence, burning down the Free State Hotel and resorting to the tradition of halting production of the local newspapers, which were for a free state. When they marched into Lawrence, they carried banners, including the state banners of Alabama and South Carolina, a flag with black and white stripes, and flags bearing pro-slavery, inflammatory inscriptions, such as “Southern Rights” and “Supremacy of the White Race.”
In the Senate in 1856, after Senator Charles Sumner denounced slavery and its supporters in the Senate, he was attacked by South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killing him with a heavy cane. After the attack, hundreds of Southern lawmakers sent Brooks new canes, inscribed with the words “Hit Him Again.” Lock her up. Stop the Steal.
One hundred years later, in 1956, 19 Senators and 82 Congressmen, all from former Confederate States, wrote the so-called Southern Manifesto. Two years before, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education had proclaimed the shocking doctrine that segregation of public schools by law was not Constitutional. In response, the Southern Manifesto opposed racial integration in public places.
The Manifesto urged states to defy the Court’s prescription, stating: “This unwarranted exercise of power by the court, contrary to the Constitution, is creating chaos and confusion in the states principally affected. It is destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through ninety years of patient effort by the good people of both races. It has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.
“Without regard to the consent of the governed, outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states.”
It was signed “With the gravest concern for the explosive and dangerous condition created by this decision and inflamed by outside meddlers.”
A little over 50 years later, a mob of white people stormed the US Capitol, urged by a President who succored white supremacists groups as stalwarts of his base, giving license to the embedded racism in the country that acquired him over 74 million votes. In style and content, their actions, their banners, their attitudes echoed the days of Bleeding Kansas and the southern stalwarts of segregation.
The concept of original sin implies acknowledging the legacy of the flaws of human nature. Major compromises were made to write a Constitution that would create a framework for all the states at that time: allowing slavery, the notion that slaves would count towards a state’s population as 3/5ths of a white person, while not being allowed to vote, and an actual prohibition in the original Constitution that slavery could not even be discussed for many years. These original sins at the nation’s creation left an institutionalized legacy that established a self-serving mythos of white supremacy that still endures.
One thing that’s never mentioned when discussing racism is the pure absurdity of it. The notion of superiority based on skin color is obliterated by the simplest of reflections, whether historical or current, personal or professional. The need for being racist is so pathetic it would be imbued with pathos were it not so harmful.
It’s a mystery to me how any white person can assume an inherent superiority to a person of color. Beyond the simple element of common humanity, any assessment would show that there is no differential in any quality that bespeaks any form of a continuum of inferior or superior. But of course the claim of supremacy isn’t really based on any intellectual or spiritual grounds, on any evidence. It is rather the need to feel one is better than someone else, one is entitled to life’s treasures more than some others, one has a protective shield that beats back any threat to a lifestyle and sense of entitlement.
So the bogeymen that they’re coming to take our jobs, that they’re getting something for free that we have to pay for, that they have qualities around work and play that are anathema to “our” values — all those (along with the grotesque economic benefits slavery conferred) are the underpinnings and rationalizations that drove Missourians into Kansas, that pushed southern families to propel young daughters to scream venom for kids who just wanted to go to school, and now creates indulgent, self-righteous zealots so lacking in finding any meaning in their everyday lives they must create an identity around pseudo trappings of group bonding. Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, whatever they call themselves, wrapping themselves in their need to be better than someone else, especially someone of color, finally given license by a purported leader to unleash their neediest, darkest impulses.
In his enlightening book Founding Brothers, Joseph Ellis detailed how deep seated anti-government skepticism was in the early American consciousness, the strains of which echo today in local militias and purported defenders of freedom. People who rebel against one form of authority often seek, through their need to define and establish their identity, to replace it with another. The cult of Trump provided the container for these American strains.
History provides other guideposts. While a clear majority of Kansas residents wanted Kansas to be a free state, that required Congressional approval, which was blocked by Southern Senators. Only after enough Southern Senators had left the Senate in the runup to the Civil War was the approval obtained, along with a host of other actions that established equitable treatment for blacks and further allowed the country to develop as a transcontinental power. And the Congressional session of 1862 became the most productive Congress in the nation’s history.
As Paul Finkelman notes, “In the summer of 1862 — with most Southerners absent and unable to block progressive legislation — Congress passed a number of laws connected to the struggle against human bondage. It created the Department of Agriculture, passed the Homestead Act, upgraded public education in the District of Columbia, enabled the creation of the transcontinental railroad, and created land grant colleges. Southerners had previously blocked all this legislation because it would lead to new free states, help the northern economy, or indirectly threaten slavery.”
The free vs. slave state question had significance beyond Kansas borders or even the issue of slavery itself. Kansas would be granted two new Senators, with significant impact on a narrowly divided Senate, potentially destroying the stranglehold that Southern senators, who represented a minority of the country and held positions not supported by the majority of the country, had on the Senate and its legislative capacity. Echoes of the issue of DC statehood.
This tyranny of a minority imposing its dogma on the majority is at the center of our political conflicts, as evidenced by the current battles over voting rights, gun management, abortion, infrastructue investment, and the use of the filibuster. How to limit the impact of a zealous, self-serving minority trampling the desires of a majority of the country is at the heart of the political dialectic of the past 40 years. Given the propensity of the Republican Party to reject any and all legislation supported by Democrats, and often the nation, it may take the equivalent of isolating them to neutralize their profound negation of national interests, and energize the nation, morally and fiscally, for the Congress of 2020 to have an equivalent impact as did the one of 1862.
The willingness, often the embrace, to resort to violence; the imposition of minority viewpoints ignoring the will of the majority; the Senate maintaining the dominance of those minority viewpoints; the powerful identity impulses that drive people from one state to threaten others to interfere with their due processes; the fears and needs that drive white supremacy — the resonances are striking.
It is folly to expect these deep rooted ideologies to be accessible to change or to be soon modified.
See my other works here on Medium, and more prescient commentaries from the past 20 years about America, how we got to where we are and what we can do about it, in my book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, which ranks highly on Amazon in Political Commentary and Historical Essays. I’d love to hear what you think about it. https://amzn.to/2H4SmDz. And more of my writing, fiction, stories, film and such, at https://www.thezog.com/ Let me know what you think, and what you’re thinking!