mea culpa

I started this foundation with the belief that there were ideals, theories and principles of tolerance that could be applied in socities that experience ethnic, religious, language-based and cultural tensions that break out in civil conflict and even war. I lamented that the phrase “never again” as the key to memory of the Holocaust has really become “again and again” and we don’t face it. If the principles could be turned into practices, the practices could be introduced then the worst consequences of intolerance could be reduced.

But, we wouldn’t apply high-falutin' theories directly. Oh no. Instead we’d find experiments that could be done on the ground like the Robber’s Cave experiment in which any group difference and separation would lead to tensions based on imagined harms caused by the other group. Then a shared obstacle would arise that could only be solved by cooperation and through cooperation members of each group would learn the more benign truth about the other. Distrust would be reduced by direct experience rather than remonstrances. And we shouldn’t try such a (insightful) academic experiment. We’d go at it indirectly to create experience that would change perceptions like a clinic on a border where people from both sides of the border could see that the other side’s sorrows and hopes were like their own.

Then the whole project lay fallow for a while after a brief burst of activity and research in other countries. When I came back to it several years later I was humbled and fatalistic as I realized that no American has any business galavanting around in other countries offering claims of insight and proposed solutions to intolerance, however modest in scope. We have this little problem right here called persistent racism. We’d recently seen it re-ignited–no, really we’d seen what never went away come out from under wraps. I realized I knew nothing about it and I had no idea what could ever be done about it.

So, I started to read about racism in the United States starting with the Civil War. It all started earlier but the Civil War cataclysm was a defining moment from which we have not yet learned the depth of the problem. I read a few things mentioned below. I didn’t get any answers or solutions. I just wanted to know what had happened, to let it sink in. To realize and accept some things that are true and see why it has been so hard to remedy it enough. Now, I can’t resume the grandiose, arrogant project. Instead, what matters is to focus here and accept the fact of problems, support causes and cast votes that can help to contribute just a little bit to some small steps of progress that other people are leading.

That’s where this stands now.

Some books:
  • Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, James McPherson. Yes, the Civil War was about slavery no matter what the Daughters of the Confederacy and contemporary southern conservative politicians have to say about it. The first hand sources from that era make it clear.

  • A Short History of Reconstruction, Eric Foner. Instead of 752 pages, you get 352 pages. Stampp’s is a book of historiography: how the history was written and teasing out what was true or false in various histories. Foner is the historian of Reconstruction. He essentially rewrote his longer work rather than merely abridging it and tells you what happened with plenty of illustrative detail in the shorter book.

  • The Era of Reconstruction, Kenneth Stampp. A re-assessment of the Reconstruction period that challenged the picture depicted by many southern historians. Reconstruction was not massively corrupt or severely punitive. The problem was it extended the franchise and some economic rights to “freedmen”–former slaves, black people in America. And that was intolerable to former confederates who wanted their power back. And former “Yankees” realized black progress wasn’t happening quickly and reconciliation with the leaders of southern society and opening up investment in the south would be better. They hadn’t loved black people as much as they hated the rebellion and the stain of slavery. So, the north gave up on it and the south vengefully pummeled black people back into the place where white people wanted them.

  • Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, David W. Blight. A remarkable story of courage and also later frustration.

  • Ulysses S. Grant, Ron Chernow. A reasonable man who did what he thought was necessary but didn’t always fully face the obstacles in society that couldn’t be fought by engaging the enemy and mastering logistics the way he had ably done in war.

  • Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight. A very hard book to read but worth grappling with. Instead of laying out facts about the war and the time right before and after, this looks at how former confederate soldiers remembered it, how yankee soldiers remembered it, how black people remembered it, how broader white southern society remembered it, and how broader northern society remembered it. It’s what they wanted to see or what hopes were dashed and how it mostly clashed and lead to a strange amalgam of American symbolism that is hard to unravel today.

  • The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois. Startling clarity on racism as a sociological reality and an unvarnished view of the challenges black people faced in the early twentieth century and still do.

  • The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward. A southern historian looks at the truth of the appalling and entirely unjustified things that did happen and caused lasting damage to black people and distorted the thoughts and beliefs of white people.

  • Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, Taylor Branch. The middle of a three volume history of the civil rights movement in America. Journalistic detail of the struggle through a lens thoughtfully focused with the benefit of history to show who did the work and how it got done or impeded.