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Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 12, 2008

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed, and the “New York Times”

Filed under: Black history,Historians,Media,scandals,Women's History — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:41 pm

Belatedly, from over Thanksgiving, let me blog congratulations to my SHEAR colleague Annette Gordon-Reed on her recent National Book Award, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.  It is always good to see these mainstream history book awards going to academic historian rather than journalists or popularizers, but in this case the award is particularly well-deserved.

I do feel obliged to comment on Gordon-Reed’s recent mentions in the New York Times, which have shown a strange discomfort with the basic approach of this book and her earlier one, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997). I would define that approach as treating Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their relatives as a really complicated family rather than as a political scandal or national shame. Accordingly, Gordon-Reed is more inclined to see Tom and Sally as a real relationship rather than a simple matter of exploitation or victimization.

Though perfectly consistent with the dominant post-1960s strain of historical research and writing on American slavery, which has emphasized slaves’ ability to carve out spaces out of independence and resistance even within such an oppressive, coercive institution, Gordon-Reed’s approach to Jefferson and Hemings seems not to sit terribly well with some white liberals, possibly of a certain age. In early October, there was a rather back-handed (though officially positive) review by Eric Foner, then this odd interview from a few days ago:

Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed – History Lesson – Interview – NYTimes.com
Your book reminds us that black and white is not as clear-cut as separatists like to pretend. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a white father and a slave mother, and three of her children grew up to live as whites.
People talk about Obama as if he were some new thing.

Right, the first interracial man!
It’s astonishing. Sex between the races was more common in the 18th century than it is now.

How do you know?
Based on the children. Slave owners had children with enslaved women.

But the women were mostly raped, weren’t they?
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of enslaved women who had children by slave masters were raped. But there were also situations where men and women of different races genuinely liked one another. Where do people think the rainbow of colors of black people comes from? Most black people in America have some white ancestry.

In that regard, Jefferson and Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society.
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.

Both the NYT interview and Foner’s review were a bit fixated on the idea of defining all interracial sex within slavery as violently coerced. While that view is probably accurate in the largest sense, and certainly consistent with the moral precepts most modern Americans believe and practice, it might not always be so helpful in understanding the messiness of human relations in a time before the equality and autonomy of all individuals had been legally and socially accepted. Foner’s recommendation in the review seemed to be, when faced with a situation as messy and ambiguous as the one between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, “punt”:

(more…)

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November 2, 2008

Nervous Musings, I

Filed under: 2008 elections,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:45 pm

I am far too into my superstitious avoidance of unhatched chicken-counting to write much more about the election right now, but I will collect here a few last musings:

The Tightening
Polls really do seem to be more accurate than they have any right to be, but the last-minute tightening of the race probably does not mean that much. It is normal for the undecideds to finally stop eeny-meeny-miney-moeing and ‘fess up in these last days, and everyone involved in the process (especially the media and the campaigns) has a strong interest in maintaining suspense until the end. Also, the idea that the first black major party nominee was going to win by a landslide was a political hothouse fantasy. The true state of things shows in the fact that John McCain has remained within 10 points in most polls (though not in most of the national ones tonight) despite running one of the worst campaigns in modern history and generally trashing his carefully nurtured positive public image in the process. The “New McCain” is the sort of guy (angry red-baiting sleazebag) that Richard Nixon invented the “New Nixon” to stop being.

One thing the New McCain and the New Nixon do have in common is the lack of confidence in their own product. Hence the McCain braintrust’s willingness to throw away their whole experience argument on a cheap base-goosing stunt and then to let said stunt, Sarah Palin, turn John McCain into a sideshow in his own campaign. Add in their willingness to send literally any goofball they could find on the street (Joe the Skinhead) out on the trail. Unfortunately, the very lameness of McCain’s campaign has turned the election into almost purely a referendum on the racial views of white Americans.

A Referendum on Race
What I mean is, given the quasi-collapse of capitalism that is going on around us, 2008 seemed destined to be a heavily Democratic-leaning election year. McCain and Palin have only been able to rally their base — that is all their attacks on Obama have really accomplished — while most state and congressional Republicans are running away from the party. Voters seem inclined to throw the rascals out. The main barrier to their doing this, in the present case, is racism. To put it another way: in many states, such as the one I am sitting in, the presidential voting seems likely to turn on the willingness of white voters to embrace a black man as their national leader/elective monarch. (I throw in the latter phrase because the president’s role as embodiment of the nation seems to be the main reason the office generates such passions, far beyond its actual connection to the most of the themes and issues that are trotted out in presidential campaigns. In what substantive way will domestic race relations likely even enter into the policies Obama might actually pursue as president?) Of course, Frank Rich made the good point in his column today that the media has been projecting a lot in its coverage of the Obama campaign, in essence looking for racism in Middle America so they don’t have to express it themselves:

Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

And yet the race problem in this election is hardly a media invention. In my state, there are a clearly a number of former Clinton and repentant Bush voters who just don’t “trust” Obama, as they are apt to put it. Now where I sit Obama seems far more trustworthy than either of those other two, but we know that the kind of “trust” they are talking about has nothing to do with what a politician has or has not done.

At any rate, Tuesday night will be either a very great or very sad moment in the history of American race relations.  “Something new under the sun,” or more of the same for another generation or more. Thanks to McCain’s horrible campaign, I am not seeing a third option. Unless . . .

Unblissful Ignorance
Alternatively, if the progressive taxation=”socialism” argument really sticks, the election may turn out to be a successful plebiscite on American political ignorance. The historian’s natural thought is to wonder if anyone under a certain age knows or cares a thing about creeping socialism in this day and age. Of course, no one does, other than that it is bad in some general way. We historians may share a little of the blame for allowing public historical ignorance to grow so deep that a major candidate can apply the socialist label to the progressive income tax — a matter of bipartisan consensus a century ago — and not be laughed out of the race. All the positive changes in what textbooks and survey courses cover has obscured the fact we are probably worse than ever at imparting to our students the basic information about U.S. political and institutional history they need to properly evaluate stupid, inaccurate claims like this one.

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September 22, 2008

A Pollster’s Dilemma

Filed under: 2008 elections,Black history,Media,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:20 pm

I have not seen that it got a lot of play nationally — though admittedly I did not watch much TV over the weekend — but a couple of the local papers were full of mischievous AP material seemingly aimed at turning the clock back to the ugly part of this year’s Democratic primaries, if not much, much further. In particular, AP’s Ron Fournier takes the opportunity of this week of national economic crisis to publicize a poll done with Stanford University that gave whites a chance to apply various racially charged adjectives to describe blacks:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks – many calling them “lazy,” “violent” or responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 – about 2.5 percentage points.

Historians will be shocked — shocked — that racism has not evaporated overnight because an African-American won a major party presidential nomination. To round out the story, Fournier and company find the grumpiest old guys in some working-class Ohio diner to make a few racist remarks, all along making various defeatist insinuations about the Obama campaign.

The underlying message seems to be that Republicans should rest easier, even now that McCain has started to fall behind in the polls again. Thanks to racism, McCain is ahead of Obama even if he is way behind. So, congratulations, GOP, prejudice is still your friend.

But guess what? AP implies that the real problem is actually Democratic racism. “Lots of Republicans harbor prejudices, too, but the survey found they weren’t voting against Obama because of his race. Most Republicans wouldn’t vote for any Democrat for president — white, black or brown.” That’s right, GOP voters in white-flight suburbs never ever vote for black candidates or a candidate friendly to black people, but only because they care about the issues. Voting for the GOP in the first place has nothing at all to do with race. Riiiight. Of course, the m.o. in many of these ‘burbs, especially the wealthier ones, is not being a racist by never personally encountering poor people of other races in a non-employee context.

Political scientist Nate Silver explains why the AP’s leap from the racial attitudes found in the poll to measurable race-based voting effects is not borne out by the data. I don’t have Silver’s statistical expertise or mathematical voting models, but it is easy to enough tell that national Democratic candidates of any race almost never run as well the local Democrats in white working-class areas. And haven’t since the late 1960s. These were the fabled “Reagan Democrats” of yore, at least the northern division of them. I am guessing that Obama will not do much worse than John Kerry or Al Gore in those places, but in some of them he will do a lot better.

Presumably the tactic behind Fournier’s story is to continue the “Democratic screw-up” meme by implying that if the liberals had only let Hillary Clinton have the nomination, instead of Obama, then white working-class voters would now be enthusiastically supporting the ticket. Uh, right. Tell me the guy who would say this to a reporter in a public place would be singing Hillary’s praises instead: “‘We still don’t like black people,’ said John Clouse, 57, reflecting the sentiments of his pals gathered at a coffee shop in Somerset, Ohio.” They sure seem like probable feminists to me. (Joke! I suspect they were against wimmin’s-libbers before the idea of black presidential candidate ever crossed their mental transoms.)

What I really don’t understand is why responsible scholars of public opinion would be involved in releasing such a poll just before an election, other than money and attention. Especially if you sincerely believe racism remains a problem in this country, as I suppose the scholars in question must, it does not seem helpful to encourage whites in the idea that their prejudices are secretly shared by their neighbors. Or does this poll emanate one of Stanford’s conservative think-tank branches? That would explain a lot.

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March 21, 2008

A “Double Standard” on Racism?

Filed under: 2008 elections,Political culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:32 pm

Commenter Mike V seemed to be replying to the wrong post, so I will reply here. First of all, let’s repeat once again that in providing some context for Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons, Barack Obama was giving reasons, not excuses. And would Mike or anyone else really want a president who was the sort of person who was in the habit of angrily walking out of church whenever they heard something from the pulpit they didn’t like, or thought might hurt them politically? No, I imagine that would be an entirely different Fox News flap.

Whatever unpleasant things Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright or any other prominent black preacher may have said or their critics may have heard them say about white people or “America,” it is not a “double standard” to decry racism and also show hostility to those people (or institutions or cultures or whatever) they believe to be racist. That is more like consistency, isn’t it? The same could said for Wright’s most quoted sermon, where he essentially argues, in what I thought was fairly orthodox Christian fashion, that the United States is like any other human institution, and cannot claim to be sinless or blameless before God.

It is also not a “double standard” that whites, especially whites holding important public trusts or enjoying access to huge audiences, are nowadays occasionally held responsible when they make racist remarks or engage in racist behavior. That is just a standard, albeit one that whites managed to shirk until the recent past. Up until the 1960s (or much later in many settings), public racism was a prerogative of the unjust power white men possessed over everyone else in American society. That’s over, or at least it ought to be, and the fact that people like Don Imus once got away with such misbehavior exculpates exactly nothing as far as their present behavior goes. When angry white guys moan about “political correctness” or “reverse racism,” what they are really mourning is the loss of an unjust advantage guys like them once had. Too bad.

Now, a little more context for Rev. Wright’s type of rhetoric, which has the white political and media world’s shorts in such a bundle. It would have been very convenient for whites if African Americans, after two centuries of slavery, legal discrimination, and violent repression, followed by another century of just the last two, had all been able to eternally abstain from negative feelings about all that had come before (and the continuing aftereffects). But that’s not human nature, is it? Nor was it, or is it, reasonable or just to ask that blacks avoid natural human feelings that they were once absolutely forbidden to express in public.

There is a powerful expression of that situation in the lyrics of “The Love You Save (May Be Your Own)” by the great Joe Tex:

I’ve been pushed around
I’ve been lost and found
I’ve been given ’til sundown
to get out of town

I’ve been taken outside
and I’ve been brutalized
and I’ve had to always be the one to smile and apologize

While whites may not like to hear it, harsh rhetoric like Jeremiah Wright’s, in his context, is a completely different thing, than nasty racial humor from a Don Imus, in his. The former was expressing, too intensely, perhaps, the real feelings of many in his audience based on real social and historical situations. The latter was just powerful man making sport of the less powerful because he thought he could, and that it might help make him some money. The former was an African American pastor speaking to his own largely African American church. The latter was a national radio and television personality speaking to heterogeneous millions over the airwaves, and whatever we are supposed to call cable TV and the Internet.

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March 5, 2008

“Vast Sociological Storms” and the March 4 Clinton Victories

Filed under: 2008 elections,Democrats — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:40 pm

Trying not to get too emotionally involved in the Democratic race, without much success, but I will keep a brave face here. It is probably important to remember that yesterday’s results were more or less the same as the polls said after Obama’s last wins. Later, wildly fluctuating insta-polls seem to have given only the appearance of a wildly shifting race. The bottom line in places like Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island (along with parts of Mass, Calif., and other states) seems to be that some working-class Catholics, be they Latinos or “white ethnics” from older immigrant groups, still have a problem with voting for an African-American. Matt Yglesias had a good post on this, with some telling exit-poll data on the voters who made the difference for Clinton:

I guess this should not come as a surprise to those of who have read works like How the Irish Became White and Wages of Whiteness; racism, both incoming and outgoing, seems to be a continuing part of the working-class immigrant experience in this country.

Considering all the other analyses floating around this morning, David Kurtz of Talking Points Memo had a great line about morning-after explanations of political events that I think historians will appreciate:

Like tribal explanations for weather phenomenon, there is a tendency to ascribe cause and effect based on proximity of events. This is especially true among political reporters and TV people. The ads they run, the events they report, the insiders they talk to must be what propels voters: Muskie was sunk by his tears. Dukakis by Willie Horton. Kerry by Swift Boaters. Vast sociological storm systems reduced to a sound bite or a highlight reel.

Small universe alert: I never knew this until after many months of reading him as the mysterious “TPM Reader DK,” but David and I not only both live in Columbia effing Missouri, but go to the same church!

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