Friday, December 9, 2016

Identity Politics, The Democratic Party, And Dred Scott: A Guest Post By Sam Hurst

Sam Hurst is a Rapid City writer.  He is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentarian.
Sam Hurst
In 1992, as a producer for NBC News, he was awarded a Neiman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard University, where he studied evolutionary biology. Following his retirement from NBC News, Hurst and his family moved to the Black Hills where he owned and operated a buffalo ranch and continued to produce independent documentary movies. His recent book "Rattlesnake Under His Hat" is a biography of Black Hills business legend Earl Brocklesby, founder of Reptile Gardens.  

I’m an old white man. That’s important to say upfront.
I have been thinking a lot these last few weeks about “identity” politics and the failure of the Democratic (Obama) Coalition. I’ve been thinking about the “forgotten man”—that angry, white, working class man—who rose from his stupor, let out a primal scream against the inevitability of the Democrat’s diversity coalition, and elected Donald Trump. I am having a hard time understanding him. Too late now…He elected Donald Trump, and now we are in for it.
How silly Democrats now seem for clinging to their blind faith that a demographic imperative would sweep Hillary Clinton into the White House. Campaign in Wisconsin? No need. Why waste money in true blue Michigan! It was enough to cobble together her own basket of inevitables (women, blacks, Latinos, LGBT,) whose numbers were growing and who would always vote Democratic because…well, they always have.
How vindicated the Republicans feel today. They have argued since the Reagan Revolution that racial and gender identity was a false foundation. How right they seem…for all the wrong reasons. How exasperating it has been for Democrats to hear Republicans embrace Martin Luther King, Jr.’s aspiration that Americans should be judged by their character rather than the color of their skin. Our world seems upside down.
All across the spectrum, from county Republican chairmen in Iowa to Senator Bernie Sanders, the verdict of election night echoes across cable television. It’s not enough to be black, or a woman, or a disabled-lesbian-vegetarian, without an economic message. The Democrats’ diversity coalition pushed the white working class up against the wall, and they kicked back. No one saw it coming.
Okay…let’s have a conversation about “identity” politics. And let’s discuss how the Democrats got trapped in their own contradictions of elitism and separation from forgotten America. But let’s have an honest conversation. And let’s start with a little history that puts “identity” in its proper context. Let’s start with the original American identity: White Supremacy.
I first read the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 US 393) forty years ago, as a graduate student in American history. It has haunted me ever since. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s majority opinion is a tightly reasoned 47 pages ( that nobody bothers to read anymore. For me, it is one of the ten most important primary documents in American history; not because of the legal precedents it established, or how it changed the Missouri Compromise, or how it catapulted the union into civil war, but because of how Chief Justice Taney, a Jackson populist, framed the fundamental problem of American identity.
Contemporary historians and legal scholars have thrashed the Dred Scott opinion (it was a 7-2 vote) as a stain on the Supreme Court. The criticisms are part of the effort to purge ourselves from an indefensible past and prove ourselves modern. But as we descend into the Age of Trump in search of that golden past he longs to return to, it is apparent to me that the Taney opinion is powerfully relevant.
Dred Scott was a slave who had lived and worked as a contract employee in Illinois and Wisconsin before being brought back to Missouri by his owner. He claimed that his years in the free-state north gave him standing under the Missouri Compromise to sue in federal court for the freedom of his family. In writing his opinion, Chief Justice Taney reflected on the attitudes and laws that guided the Founding Fathers at the time of the Revolution.
“They [African Americans] had for more than a century before [the drafting of the Constitution] been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Let the words roll around in your mouth. This was the foundation on which Taney grounded his rejection of Dred Scott’s plea for standing. “…of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race…” But what about the children of slaves? What about their grandchildren? What about the seventh generation of African-Americans? Could a slave or former slave ever aspire to equality with the white man?
“In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people…”
The Chief Justice was hardly done. Even with the nation about to fracture into civil war, he did not shy away from his duty to recount the original intent of the Founders. He did not try to obscure or twist or reinterpret the state of mind of the Fathers. Justice Scalia would be proud.
“He [the African slave] was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing…”
Let the sour taste roll around in your mouth. Human beings,“ ordinary article of merchandise…fixed and universal.”
Taney recounted the laws of individual colonies—Maryland and Massachusetts, by example—drilling home his conclusion that even though the new states of the nation were not united in their attitudes toward slavery, they were united in their attitudes toward the supremacy of the white race and the inferiority of the African race.
“…in the eyes and thoughts of the men who framed the Declaration of Independence and established the State Constitutions and Governments… They show that a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery, and governed as subjects with absolute and despotic power, and which they then looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings, that intermarriages between white persons and negroes or mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes…And no distinction in this respect was made between the free negro or mulatto and the slave, but this stigma, of the deepest degradation, was fixed upon the whole race.”
No matter the greater aspirations of African-Americans who toiled in the fields. No matter their talents. No matter their work ethic. No matter how much blood was Ghanian and how much Scottish. No matter their dedication to family. No matter their desire to become citizens, to love and embrace the land that had enslaved them. No matter their astounding ability to survive. Taney drew a bright white line in the sand. Slaves and former slaves, their children and grandchildren, generations into the future, forever, in the eyes of the Founding Fathers, could never be citizens. For many white Americans (perhaps most), they could never even be human.“…this stigma, of the deepest degradation, was fixed upon the whole race.”
Of course, Taney concluded, Dred Scott had no standing to sue for his freedom. He could never have standing.
From slave auction blocks and Baptist pulpits to the floor of the U.S. Senate, from elementary schools in Hannibal, Missouri, to barrooms on the frontier of Bloody Kansas and the editorial pages of South Carolina newspapers, north to south, from sea to shining sea, the nation wrapped itself in a culture and legal system of white supremacy. No one was exempt.
Historians describe the economic system of slavery as the original sin of the Founding Fathers that could only be redeemed by the slaughter of the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments, and the courageous activists of the civil rights movement; a heavy price, indeed. Paid in blood. But if slavery was the original sin that could be purged by the Thirteenth Amendment, the legal, economic, and cultural system of white supremacy that wrapped itself around slavery is the poison at the heart of our national identity that no pile of twisted bodies at Fredericksberg and no bloody Freedom Riders have been able to purge.
White supremacy is the original “identity” of America. And it is white supremacy that one generation after another of demagogues has rallied to defend long after slavery was abolished; sometimes full-throated from the pulpit, sometimes from the political stump, sometimes by blocking the schoolhouse door, and sometimes by dog whistle.
For 150 years after the Reconstruction Amendments promised a Second American Revolution, Americans have struggled in courtrooms, in the streets, in schools, on assembly lines, at family dinner tables, to purge the poison of white supremacy from our system. It took a hundred years and thousands of cracked skulls and lynching’s to beat Jim Crow. To what effect? Republican legislatures gerrymandered legislative districts to isolate and minimize the impact of the black vote. It took decades to expose residential segregation and redlining in our cities. To what effect? White families fled to the suburbs, built walls to protect ourselves from the emerging black middle class, and changed our registration from Democrat to Republican. Nixon’s Southern Strategy—Reagan Democrats.
A cornerstone of slavery and Jim Crow was a legal system that denied African-Americans the right to an education, even basic literacy. For sixty plus years after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, progressives have tried to de-segregate our public schools. To what effect? White citizens fled, and decided that we would rather destroy public education than go to school with African Americans. Progressive advocates of integration created hundreds of affirmative action policies at American universities to give the talented tenth an opportunity to fulfill their potential. To what effect? Conservative whites complained that affirmative action was not the American Way. We were the victims of discrimination they insisted. You have to admire the sheer audacity!
Unions overcame their own worst histories and led the fight to de-segregate the American economy. To what effect? We destroyed the unions and shipped the jobs to right-to-work states in the South.
Slavery is long passed, but the culture of white supremacy persists. It hangs on with grim determination in the unemployment lines in Ohio, the abandoned factories in Michigan, and the inflamed rhetoric of Trump rallies. After all, African-Americans are, “…altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”
It is a long-standing article of faith among whites in my region of the country that Blacks, Latinos, and Lakota Americans refuse to do the hard work of participating in the grand experiment of American exceptionalism. They are lazy. They don’t show up for work. They get pregnant as teenagers. They commit crimes against their own. They deal dope on the street corner. They flood across the border. They don’t graduate from high school. They worship a false messiah. They refuse to participate in the American Way. We are the victims of their excesses and dependencies.
This is a willful ignorance of our shared history. We have it exactly upside down. It’s not that African-Americans refuse to participate in American society. It’s that we refuse to allow access to American society. The words of Chief Justice Taney are as haunting today as they were 150 years ago.
“…a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery…”
For the longest time I could not understand why Donald Trump chose to carry the banner of the birther movement. Why in the world would a real estate tycoon in Manhattan find advantage in making himself a clown by insisting that the first African-American President of the United States was not really a citizen? Why would he persist in the crusade for almost eight years? Of course, we have now learned the answer. Donald Trump has been channeling Justice Taney. For the President-elect and birthers, and their paranoid social media sites, Barack Obama cannot be a citizen, nor can his strong, proud daughters, or their sons in another 20 years. To believe that they can be citizens is to smash the original intent of the Founders, break the social contract, and denigrate the exceptionalism of the American white male.
We are aghast at the overt racism of the alt-right rabble-rouser, Richard Spencer, who told a gathering of supporters at Texas A&M University last Tuesday night, "This country does belong to white people — culturally, socially and politically." Between Nazi salutes and chants of “Hail Trump”, he also told his crowd of 400, “What I care about is white identity…I want white identity to be a force in politics.” We are desperate to hate him, to judge him an intellectual Neanderthal, to marginalize him. But young Mr. Spencer is channeling Roger Taney. And Taney was channeling the Founding Fathers.
Most Americans will find the arguments embedded in a 159 year old Supreme Court decision absurdly obscure and irrelevant—useless in our time. But Donald Trump does not, even though he has probably never read the Dred Scott decision. It is worth a side note that Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s senior advisor, has described Andrew Jackson as the American president Mr. Trump is most likely to resemble…so Spencer’s rants and Trump’s dog whistles are consistent with the Jacksonian populism that Chief Justice Taney embraced.
The President-elect understands that slavery has passed. Jim Crow has been beaten to the ground. But white supremacy is the backbone of our social contract. It is our original identity. Make America Great Again.
By equal measure I wonder why the Republican Party is so relentless in its adoration of the Founding Fathers. Our Constitution is woefully irrelevant to the problems of modern life. What is it about the Founding Fathers that Republicans find so infallible, 250 years after they locked themselves in a room in Philadelphia and built a slave republic? Why do these strict constructionists celebrate the genius of the Founding Fathers but reject the genius of Thaddeus Stevens and the 14th 15th and 19th Amendments? Why is it that conservatives so vociferously reject the idea that the Constitution is a “living document” that must change with the centuries? What are they afraid to let go of? I don’t understand, but Chief Justice Taney did.
While Donald Trump prepares for the White House, we 21st century progressives cannot look ourselves in the mirror. We are ashamed. We believe ourselves to be better than our own history, better than Mr. Trump’s basket of deplorables. We play a self-congratulatory game of whack-a-mole on the subject of racism. We sit in judgment of our fellow citizens, with a thumbs-up, thumbs-down finality. You’re a racist. He’s a racist. The middle school teacher who loses control of her class and screams racial epithets at her students is fired. The mayor who re-tweets a joke about Michelle Obama looking like an ape is forced to resign. The anchor who lets slip a racially condescending comment is taken off the air. The NBA owner who uses racial slurs to describe his players is forced to sell his team. The policeman who shoots a citizen in the back is contrite. He may be a murderer, but to the bitter end he insists, “I am not a racist!” In our effort to pass judgment on every “rotten apple”, we utterly miss the larger point. Our system, our way of life, is built on white supremacy. It is the poison in our veins, and the veins of our fathers, and we cannot whack-a-mole our way to redemption. We’re all in it…up to our necks.
It is easy for Democrats to confuse the important effort to develop an economic message with the struggle to defend white supremacy. In the 1930s and 40s American labor unions struggled with the same challenge. For decades the working class was synonymous with racism. Why? The bosses told us that blacks would take white jobs. We should never forget that Donald Trump is a businessman, and his strategy of divide and conquer comes straight out of the historical playbook of American business. It’s the playbook that set newly arrived black immigrants from the South against white industrial workers in Chicago. It’s the playbook that set Chinese “coolies” against Irish railroad workers. It’s the playbook that set Teamsters against Latino farmworkers. Trump took men who were at the end of their ropes and told then that it was Blacks and Latinos and Muslims who were to blame for their fate. Don’t look behind the curtain. Hordes of Blacks and immigrants and terrorist Muslim refugees were pounding on the factory gates, but he is just the strong man to defend the race and lead us back to glory. If we rallied together, we could make America white again.
As reporters and pundits tried to understand the Trump sweep through the northern industrial states, we were admonished over and over again that Hillary Clinton failed to “listen to the grievances of the white working class.” Vice President Biden implored the Clinton campaign: “We’re not showing enough respect to these people.” The judgment must have come as a shock to labor leaders who have been fighting the inequities of global capitalism for decades.
There is a more delicate point to be made. While progressives have every reason to listen and empathize with the working class (a little organizing wouldn’t hurt, either), we should be wary of pandering to white men and their claims of victimhood. Along with crafting a populist economic message, there needs to be some push back against the dark side of the white working class. There needs to be a recognition that in the real world the American working class is, itself, diverse. It’s made up of low-income black women secretaries, Muslim policemen, Latino roofing crews, and none of them are taking jobs from white men. Of course, that wasn’t the working class that Donald Trump was speaking to at his rallies. That wasn’t the working class that delivered his ever-so-thin majorities in Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump’s working class won’t be easy to reach, and they can’t be reached by young black militants or DACA Dreamers or water protectors at Standing Rock. Old white men have to speak truth to ourselves.
Why? Because we are the heirs to the legacy of white supremacy, and we are the ones who have to break it. We must be the ones to reject the infallibility of our Founding Fathers. The nation cannot be made whole until we reject the poisonous ideology of racial supremacy.
We need to stop whining, and stand up to the demagoguery that tells us our failures and limitations are their fault. Man up! Come to terms with privilege. The grand irony of modern America is that white men, no matter our class or condition of previous servitude, are the most privileged, entitled class of humans in the history of the world. And yet, we are so quick to wallow in our own self-pity and sense of victimhood. Republicans believe that people should not be given advantage just because of their race, in the absence of initiative or accomplishment. And yet the principle that white men, regardless of our initiative or accomplishment, are, by virtue of our skin color, superior and privileged, has governed American society from its inception—from frontier to colony to state to union. 400 years! And modern Republicans have not done one damn thing to challenge that privilege.
Now for the hard part: It is easier to critique an old decision of the Supreme Court than it is to articulate exactly what, practically, white men should be doing to break the legacy of white supremacy. Progressives have a tendency to get lost in the big picture. The way to solve racism is universal health insurance, or affordable housing, or a war on poverty, or high quality public education. Minorities will suffer most from the impact of climate change. The best way to deal with the mass incarceration of black men is to give everybody a job. True, all! But what does an old white man actually do when he gets up in the morning?
Last January, Stephen Colbert invited the young Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson onto the Late Show to talk about race. It was an eight-minute segment. The first four minutes were wasted on a gratuitous discussion of why “all lives matter” and why only a few “rotten apple” policemen shoot black teenagers in the street. But the last four minutes of their conversation were quite revealing. Colbert invited McKesson to change seats with him. Their conversation gives us insight into how difficult it will be for white men to deal with privilege. Here’s part of the exchange:
McKesson (in the host’s chair): “What do you plan to do now that you understand your whiteness a little better?”
Colbert (eyes wide): “What am I going to do to dismantle my white privilege?”
McKesson (interrupting) “Yes…now that you understand it.”
Colbert: “I don’t know if I do understand it. I can acknowledge it, but I’m not sure if I understand what I can do to dismantle white privilege.”
McKesson: “You have a lot of money. You have a show.”
Colbert: “You can’t have my money.”
Audience laughter.
Colbert: “And you can’t have my show.”
Audience laughter.
McKesson: “What can you do to manage that guilt?”
Colbert: “I drink a fair amount.”
Audience laughter.
McKesson: “You’re great.”
Colbert: I don’t know. I’m shooting from the hip, here.”
Stephen Colbert hardly understood what he was saying when he made the joke: “You can’t have my money. And you can’t have my show.” Black men cannot have our money, and they cannot have our mass media. Of course, that’s not literally what Colbert meant. He was joking. But, come to think of it, where is Arsenio Hall these days?
At the end of the segment, McKesson and Colbert agreed that we need to take “baby steps.” Disarming the corrosive effects of white supremacy is such a big undertaking, our insecurities are so deep, and the crutch of seeking solutions in sweeping generalities is so convenient, I agree with the suggestion that we take baby steps. Here’s my first draft. Please add to it.
1. Admit to ourselves that we are the product of racial privilege. This is almost a religious confession, but once made, it clears the air for new thinking. It is an essential first step. This is not a confession of personal racism or personal blame. It’s an acknowledgement of the raw facts of our common history. In this regard, it is a non-starter to lose ourselves in the whack-a-mole game of who’s a racist and who’s not. Don’t get lost in the idea that “It’s not my fault.” We are all part of the system. The challenge is not to identify the “bad apple”, but to acknowledge our own privilege. Embrace the history, but waste no time with personal blame or shame. It corrodes the stomach.
2. Give the Founding Fathers their due, but no more. False idol worship blocks us from dealing with our world in our own way. The Founding Fathers are dead 200 years. Even in their time they were neither smarter nor more righteous than every generation that has followed them. They relied on religion and pseudo-science and economic advantage to cobble together a despicable system of slavery and white supremacy. We have given them a pass because they did not know better, or did not know how to unwind their own failings. Perhaps it is time to call them out. If we are truly “not to blame” for the original sin, we need to face up to it and resolve it. Don’t let it pass to our children. Would I be pretentious to quote Voltaire? “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” It is time for us to do good.
3. Build your opinions about movements and organizations you don’t understand from the primary voices of young black activists who may make you uncomfortable. Read Read the police reform website Read The Break out of your comfort zone. If you are listening to Hannity and Limbaugh rattle on about the violence of black activists, it may be comforting, but it’s useless. They are playing you for a fool. They believe that you do not have the simple intelligence to seek knowledge on your own. If you can search the web for an alt-right conspiracy website, you can search for the original voices of contemporary black activism. As Donald Trump said so eloquently, “What do you have to lose?” If the young activists are a step too far, if you’re not “woke” quite yet, bookmark the, or
4. Start to read about race. Visit your local library and ask for a few books about slavery, segregation and civil rights. Librarians love to help a conscious reader. Start a reading group with other white men. Think that’s funny? Ridiculous? Think that real men don’t read books and talk to each other? Man up! Don’t celebrate ignorance. Make 2017 the year that you read Eric Foner on Reconstruction, or Taylor Branch on the Civil Rights movement, or Hank Aaron on what it was like to break into the Big Leagues as a young black ballplayer. Read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria. Read her essay on Racial Identity Development Theory. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, and The Case for Reparations. Don’t worry about agreeing with him. Maybe he’ll drive you crazy. That’s okay. Read him.
5. Visit a local public school and volunteer. Assert your belief in public education. Get your head on right about this…you aren’t there to save poor black or Latino or Indian children. You’re there to learn from them. Listen to them talk about their lives.
6. Recognize and embrace the reality that a debt is owed. There are reparations to be paid. The sooner we recognize that reality, the sooner we can get to healing. Quit whining about it. Affirmative action programs work. They make our nation stronger. If we had made Head Start universal a generation ago, if we had sustained and enlarged affirmative action programs for university admission, if we had encouraged affirmative action hiring policies in business and unions, as practical, non-ideological programs rather than bending over backwards to reject them as un-American, we would be a long way toward creating the level playing field we claim to believe in. I hear you: “But I don’t believe in giving one person an unfair advantage over another.” Deal with it! We have had 400 years of advantage, and we’re not complaining about that. Coming to grips with our privilege means coming to grips with the debt. Buck up.
7. We cannot grow our way out of white supremacy. Slavery was certainly an economic system (so were the Black Codes and Jim Crow). Racial inequality is certainly tied up with the problem of poverty. It’s part of the catastrophic gap between the rich and poor. But white supremacy is not the same thing as poverty. We can’t dismiss our history of slavery and enforced segregation with platitudes about growing the economy. Growing the economy doesn’t heal the soul.
8. Go out of your way to build relationships with people from different backgrounds…not Van Jones, or Richard Sherman, or a virtual friend on television…a real human. If it is so essential that we “listen” to the white working class, listen to your new friends. Don’t preach…listen.
Looking at this list, I am embarrassed. These seem like such simplistic ideas. There is nothing grand, or noble about them. Celebrate baby steps.
Americans are in for a rough road the next four years. Many of us are still shell-shocked and confused about how to resist. Donald Trump gave voice to the despicable shadows of our society and they now posture as a majority with a mandate to govern. They are not the majority. They have no mandate. The Clinton Era is over. The New Era is being born and it is a little scary that no one knows what it will look like. Each generation has its chance to purge the poison of white supremacy from our system. This is our chance. Take it as an honor. We can take courage from the young. It will be good for us. In Ferguson, Missouri and Standing Rock, North Dakota the young are speaking truth to power. They are already far head of us in their thinking and action. We just have to learn how to follow.


  1. A great post, and thank you for writing it.

    Race will always be an issue in America because in our country no one can ever breed themselves white. Instead, they are always defined - as entertainer, politician, church-goer, athlete - by their race: "Hispanic-American", "Asian-American," "African-American". And if they're just called an American, they're white. But that's not the way it is in the rest of the world. Did you know that Alexandre Dumas, the author of "The Three Musketeers", etc., was (by American standards) black? Never mentioned. Nor about his son, Alexandre Dumas fils, another writer. Or the great writer Colette. But we can't ever let go of the race card. And that ties right into other horrendous things, like the presumption of (non-white) guilt that underlies Stop-And-Frisk laws, and, of course, Stand Your Ground (where the non-white deceased is always presumed guilty).

  2. One of the best pieces on race I've read. Owning up to the history is one thing, but that's where most whites get off the discussion. We all say slavery was wrong, don't we? But history has consequences that can last centuries. As you indicate, American slavery was built on an almost religious belief in White Supremacy and that was the underpinning of our Founding Documents. Even when we changed the Founding Documents, we still carry forward much of their underpinning.

    There certainly is a lot here to digest.

  3. A couple of glimpses of the other side of things:

    and The Netflix documentary 13th.

    My brother recently introduced me to the author James Bradley, author of "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Flyboys", when he gave me Bradley's latest book, China Mirage. I have just started reading an earlier book of his, "The Imperial Cruise", another documentary of our Far East policy under McKinley, William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. I was shocked to learn that the white privilege to which Mr Hurst alludes stems way back to aryan race stemming in Germany passing on to Great Britain and then on to the United States and stemming from the Teutons. That aryan dominant attitude expressed by Hitler in Nazism has been passed on to the "white" race and is the reason that we find it in the near extermination of the Native Americans and still existing in the wars that we are fighting in the Middle East today. We (being the white race) have looked down on the other races since time immemorial.

    Thanks for an excellent piece Mr Hurst and for allowing it on Constant Commoner, John.