I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”
Tierno S. Bah
In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.
Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.
A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.
One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.
In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.
Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.
The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.
Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.
The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.
It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.
Richard Spencer is among the tens of millions of Americans who are excited about Donald Trump’s coming presidency. The 38-year-old white nationalist heads a small organization, called the National Policy Institute, and believes people of different skin color are inherently different, hate each other and should live separately.
Reveal’s host Al Letson talked to Spencer the day after the election. You can hear the whole conversation above and read the transcript below. While the months of campaigning were often devoid of real exchanges of ideas, this is the opposite: a frank and deep conversation, revealing starkly different views of the same world.
For instance, Spencer tells Al his long-term dream is an “ethnostate” – a territory set aside for people of European descent.
“So that we would always have a safe space,” Spencer says. “We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to … how Jews conceive of Israel.”
Living all mixed together, he suggests, has not worked out that well.
Spencer also says he believes that Trump opens the door for white identity politics to become an overt and welcome part of mainstream conversation in America for the first time.
Al, who is African American, asks how Spencer is different from members of the Ku Klux Klan or other racists who “hung people up from trees.”
His answer is worth hearing.
Spencer is well-educated and well-spoken, from a mainstream conservative family. Reveal profiles him in our upcoming episode and podcast, in partnership with Mother Jones magazine.
Al Letson: So Richard, it’s the day after Donald Trump won the election. I think so many people were surprised. Were you surprised by it?
Richard Spencer: I was surprised. And I, I didn’t believe it. And I’m not sure I believe it even right now. It’s all a little surreal. I mean I thought that he was, I thought he had a much better chance than people were giving him credit for. I thought it was a much better chance than say the 5 percent chance that the Huffington Post or The New York Times gave him. Or even like the 25 percent chance that Nate Silver was giving him. I thought, I thought he was going to bring in new voters. And I also thought that there were a lot of shy Trump voters out there. But even I couldn’t believe it when it happened. I was with a friend. We were actually at the Trump Hotel on election night and that was a lot of fun and we were just walking around town. We were both kind of like pinch us. I’m not sure it’s real. So it’s it’s been quite a day.
Al Letson: So now your candidate has won. What do you see the future of America being? Because, you know, I feel like Trump winning means that kind of all bets are off. Like everything that people may have thought was going to happen the day after and from here on after, can be shifted at this one moment in time. So I’m curious, like for you, what does the future look like? Or what do you hope the future looks like?
Richard Spencer: Yeah I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think this was just an unusual election with an unusual candidate. I think this really was a paradigmatic shift. The new paradigm that Donald Trump brought into the world was identity politics and in particular white identity politics. And this, this question which he asked directly: “Are we a nation or are we not?”
And defining his political message not on conservatism. Because, I mean, Trump is not a conservative in the way that self-described ideological conservatives understand that term. He does not – his starting point is not freedom and liberty, his starting point is not tax cuts. His starting point is not an aggressive democracy promotion foreign policy in the Middle East. His starting point is nationalism. Are we a nation? Are we a people or are we not? And again, this is something that his critics said oh this won’t play, this is too toxic, it’s too awful.
Al Letson: To to you when he says that.
Richard Spencer: And this will never work. But it worked.
Al Letson: To you and he says are we a nation or not, does nation mean specifically white people? Because when I hear are we a nation or not. I hear him say all Americans. That’s that’s what I’m listening for. But but does that is that coded language and it says something different to you?
Richard Spencer: Well obviously there are people of other races who are United States citizens. They’re, they’re here. But what really defines the American nation. Is the American nation just defined as a kind of economic platform for the world? Is the American nation just purely defined by the constitution and some legalisms? No. The American nation is defined by the fact that it is derived from Europe. That European people settled this continent, that European people built the political structures, that European people influenced its architecture, its economy, its art, its way of life and society and so on. So America, I agree of course there are many different people here. But which people truly define what America is? Well obviously that could change.
Al Letson: Let me, let me let let me respond to that let me respond to it though. Because I would say that every culture that came to America helped shape America as it is now. It was all the people that were here that created what America is.
Richard Spencer: Well, that’s certainly true to a certain extent. But I would say that white Americans, European-Americans, in particular Anglo-Saxon Americans, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were this essential historic people. That they defined it in a way that no other people did. So, of course African-Americans have influenced American culture and American identity. Of course Asians have and so on. But it really was Anglo-Saxons who truly defined it. Who made America what it is. Who were indispensable. There are other people, you know, other races and all sorts of other different countries. But there has to be that founding people, that indispensable people that really makes the country what it is.
Al Letson: I disagree with you completely but I’m going to go past that because I want to get back more to your idea about what the future’s going to be. Because if you see America as a place that was predominately created by white people, and for white people, which – I’m not sure if I disagree with the for white people – but I would definitely say if you see that is what America has been, is that where you see it going?
Richard Spencer: To be honest. That’s that’s not where I have seen it going. Over the course of my lifetime. I’ve experienced something that is quite the opposite of this notion of an America of and for white people. I have experienced a great transformation of the American nation and American culture and society. I’ve certainly experienced through immigration a move towards multiculturalism and multiracialism. But there is, you could say, a moral component to it as well. Where we live in a world of a white guilt complex. Where if a non-white actor is hired for this new movie role or more non-white applicants apply to this college or there’s a new non-white CEO of this major corporation, that’s thought of as inherently a good thing morally speaking. We need more of that. We need less white people in positions of power. We need more non-white people in positions of power. So this has been my experience I’m 38 years old. I was born in 1978. This has been my experience of America. It has not been – the arrow has not been pointing towards a country of and for white people.
Al Letson: I guess the point that I would make there is that like, if you look at the numbers, a majority of the power in this country is controlled by white people.
Richard Spencer: Yes.
Al Letson: If you look at Hollywood just, if you just look at Hollywood right now, like majority of the films that are being made star white people. If you look in colleges and look at the admission rates like you see majority of that is white people. And I think that what you’re talking about is that, you know, the world or the country is trying to find a balance where everybody gets a seat at the table. Where it’s not just so white people get all of this stuff and everybody else gets left into the corner. You know, I hear this argument a lot where I hear people talk about things like there’s BET Black Entertainment Channel and people wonder like why isn’t there a White Entertainment Channel. But every time I cut on the TV and look at just any TV station, majority of what I see is white. So therefore like there already is a White Entertainment Channel. We don’t need a White Caucus in Congress because most of Congress is white.
Richard Spencer: I think there is a certain degree of truth to what you’re saying. If we were living in, say, 1965 but we’re not living in that world anymore. Yes, white people are generally better off than many other people. But again, the question really is, which way is the arrow pointing? All of these institutions are not acting on behalf of white people. They are acting on behalf of non-white people. And you can talk about this being fair, or what have you. But I will be brutally honest with you. Fairness has never been really a great value in my mind. I like greatness and winning and dominance and beauty. Those are values. Not really fairness.
Al Letson: So Donald Trump is your perfect candidate.
Richard Spencer: Yes. Look, again, I don’t think Donald Trump is me. I don’t think Donald Trump is alt-right. I don’t think Donald Trump is an identitarian as I would use that term. I think Donald Trump is a kind of first step towards this. He’s the first time that we’ve seen a genuinely if, you could say incomplete, politician who’s fighting for European identity politics in North America. This is the first time we’ve seen it.
Al Letson: How do you maintain it though? Because the numbers are going against you. Pretty soon white people are going to be the minority in America like in the next, what 40 years?
Richard Spencer: Yes. By 2042 white, if nothing else changes, white people will become a minority. Also the majority of births right now are actually to non-white people. So there is a dramatic transformation taking place. Now, what is going to happen in that? Are we going to all, in 2042 are we going to all decide oh well you know race doesn’t mean anything anymore. Identity is meaningless. We’re just all atoms here in the United States and we all go shopping in the same store. We just have different skin colors. No. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. I think whites are going to be, they’re going to have a amplification of their consciousness of being white. That this whole process we’re experiencing is not going to bring about racelessness. It’s going to bring about a new consciousness amongst white people that actually wasn’t there before.
Al Letson: So, what happens with that consciousness?
Richard Spencer: Well it’s not necessarily, look, it might not be about maintaining an all white society. I don’t think I can snap my fingers and we could go back to 1965 before the major immigration act under LBJ that really dramatically changed the country. I don’t think that. But I think the only way forward is through identity politics. And the only way forward for my people, for us to survive and thrive, is by having a sense of identity. And I don’t know what the future is going to hold, but we need that.
Al Letson: So earlier when you were talking to our producer and reporter you talked about that you wanted a white ethnostate. Is that the end goal, the white ethnostate? Because I guess like I don’t understand how you get to a white ethnostate if already you’re beginning to lose the numbers.
Richard Spencer: Right. The, the ideal of a white ethnostate, and it is an ideal, is something that I think we should think about in the sense of what could come after America. It’s kind of like a grand goal. It’s very similar to in the 19th century when the left had ideals of communism. It was you know, politics is the art of the possible. But philosophy is kind of the art of the impossible, so to speak. So that they were imagining a new society. And at some point they brought it into being. A similar thing could be said of Jews in the 19th century who were imagining Zionism. There’s a Jewish state in the Middle East. That that was impossible. That did not exist.
Al Letson: Richard, respectfully man, like so are you saying that like America has to end in order for your ethnostate to happen? Because if you are trying to have a white ethnostate, what you’re basically saying is that you have to forcibly remove people. Because I got to tell you like I’m African-American and I’m not leaving.
Richard Spencer: I don’t.. this shouldn’t be taken as a cop-out but the fact is I don’t know. Because I don’t know what history has in store for us. I don’t know how history is going to unfold. What I do know is that for my people to survive we have to have a sense of who we are. We have to have, we have to have identity. And we don’t always have it. We don’t have an ethnic ethnic racial consciousness. Now in terms of an ethnostate, I don’t know how that will be possible. I mean, for leftists in the 19th century, communism seemed just downright impossible. Over and over again. But history presents opportunities and it becomes possible. So, the ethnostate’s not going to happen next week. It’s most likely not going to happen through Donald Trump. What the ethnostate is, is an ideal. It’s a thing, it’s a way of thinking about we want a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. All European people. So that would include Slavs, that would include Germans, that would include Latins, it who would include people of all ethnicities that we would always have a safe space. We would always have a homeland for us. Very similar to, very similar to how Jews conceive of Israel.
Al Letson: Sure. Are you going to do that in Europe?
Richard Spencer: Again, I’m not trying to, this is not a cop-out. I don’t know. All I’m saying is that you have to dream before you can build it. And we have to have this idea in our mind. I don’t know where it will happen because I don’t know how history is going to unfold. All of this stuff might very well not happen in my lifetime. But the thing is, I know that in my lifetime I’m going to have opportunities to fight for the survival of my people and my civilization.
Al Letson: I’ve done some some reading on you. Just a little bit of research and watched a couple of videos. And you’re a handsome guy man, and you’re well put together. You’re really smart. And I’m I’m actually enjoying, like having this conversation with you. But, what’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being? Like what’s the difference. Because you know you have this great sheen about you. Like and I don’t necessarily agree with your views but this is America and I totally support you being able to have those views. But you know, I mean to me it just sounds like the same old thing that I’ve heard before in a different packaging.
Richard Spencer: Well, I don’t think it is the same old thing we’ve heard before. I think you just said that it’s not. That you’re actually intrigued by it. I don’t, you know, look I’m not going to comment about you know some hypothetical Klansman or or whomever.
Al Letson: There’s no such thing as a hypothetical Klansman because the people that I’m talking about exist. They have gone out, they have burned crosses on people’s lawns. They have lynched people. They’ve done horrible horrible things. They are the first American terrorists. So it’s not hypothetical. I’m not comparing you to this thing that I’m just dreaming up. I’m comparing you to history. And I’m not intrigued by your ideas. I’m saying to you that like your ideas sound just like them, except you wear a nice suit and you can speak to me directly. And I respect that about you. I respect that you and I can have this conversation, that you’re not wearing a hood, but it’s the same thing. And that’s so that’s what I’m asking. Like what is the difference?
Richard Spencer: I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.
Al Letson: Richard. How are you different from them? Because you are talking about a white ethnostate. You’re saying that white people don’t have space in this country. I heard the interview with our producers. And one of the things that you said is that you were going to be able to talk to people of color about going along with your white ethnostate. And so – you’ve got a person of color right now. Talk to me about your white ethnostate.
Richard Spencer: Let’s not talk about the ethnostate. Let’s talk about identity. Who are you? If I say that, don’t think about it just answer. Who are you?
Al Letson: Sure. Sure. I’m an African-American male that has four kids. One of those kids is a white kid. I adopted him. He has no black blood in his body at all. He is the apple of my eye. He’s my 16-year-old boy and I love him to death. I have a child that’s biracial and I have two black kids. So. So yeah. I’m a black man who has love in his heart for everybody on this planet, including you. So that’s who I am. Who are you?
Richard Spencer: I’m Richard Spencer. I’m a European person. I, I’m part of this great story of Europe and our history. I was born in Massachusetts, I grew up in Texas. I like mountain biking. You know, what I’m getting at is that, when I ask you that, even, even despite the fact that you have, you know, I guess a white wife perhaps or a white child. You still answered that I’m an African-American male. And that has meaning for you. And I respect that. If you ask your average white person in America, “Who are you?” they are going to probably never get around to talking about their European identity or their heritage. They’re afraid of it. They know it. Everyone’s kind of racially unconscious. They know it in their bones but they’re not conscious. They don’t want to really talk about it and explore it and think about how that inflects their life. So that’s what I want to bring. I respect your identity. I respect the fact that you think about it seriously, that you take it seriously. I want white people to take it seriously. In terms of what I was talking about of like we’re going to do this together. I think that I want to see an identitarian future. I want to see people, different peoples, different civilizations having a sense of themselves and finding out ways to live together.
Al Letson: But a white ethnostate is not people living together. What you’re saying to me now is different from what you said before because what you said before would basically mean that I would live in one state and my son, my white son, would have to live in another state. You know, for me when we talk about like my blackness and me saying that I’m an African-American man. It’s true. I am proud of my blackness but I’m not advocating for ethnostate. So I want to respect you as a white man. I see that. I understand that history. I want you to respect me as a black man and see that and understand that history and then figure how we move forward together. That’s the difference between me and you is that I want to move forward together. And you feel like those fissures that are between us are too big to pass over.
Richard Spencer: I do respect your identity and I respect you as a black man. But the question I would have to ask is: Do you really think that we’re all better together? Do you think that modern America, contemporary America there’s greater levels of trust and togetherness than we had decades ago, or that other, you know, more ethnically homogenous nations have? I don’t think so. And I have to be honest. I think we actually kind of hate each other. And that is a very tragic thing. And that’s a very sad thing. And we don’t trust each other. And we can talk about how one day we’re going to all be holding hands, or we can actually be realistic about this and we can actually look at the power of human nature and the power of race.
Al Letson: If that is your worldview then I’m sorry. Because, like I said, like I I have white family members that I love. So no, I don’t think that we hate each other. I think that there is not a nation in this world that doesn’t have problems. But I would say that like when you just said like if we could go back x amount of years, would we be better? No, because I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. We wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in right now. And I’m, I’m sorry but like the mixing pot is already created. You’re talking about going into a stew that’s already been made. Spilling it out and picking out each individual ingredient and thinking that you’re going to have a whole thing that works again. And you won’t.
Richard Spencer: I think you’re using your own personal experience, and I think you’re being genuine in talking about it, but you’re projecting that onto everyone else’s experience. Look what just happened. I mean is this an example of how class trumps race? Is this an example of us getting together? No it wasn’t. Look, I can get along with non-white people. I do. There are certainly exceptions that prove the rule but the rule is the most important thing. And that is that when you have two really dramatically different cultures, two dramatically different races all being forced together it’s a recipe for turmoil. And distrust and hatred. And I don’t know of an historical example that contradicts that.
Al Letson: Listen, you and I could go back and forth nonstop. And if you ever want to have a conversation, like just to hear the other side or anything you feel free to call me up because I will talk to you all day. Because I think honestly, the only way forward is through. And the way through is that like people like you and I like actually have conversations. As much as I think that you’re dead wrong and as much as you think that I’m dead wrong we’re actually, the fact that we’re having the conversation is probably the best benefit that could come out of both sides of it. So, Richard, I appreciate your time. Thanks for talking to us. And yeah like I said man, seriously if you want to have another conversation, I don’t know how many black people you get to talk to in your life. But if you’d like to have a conversation at any time feel free to give me a call. And if you’d like to talk to my son I would love to put you on the phone with him to hear his experience of America.
Richard Spencer: Interesting. Let’s do it.
Al Letson: We’ll let you know if that conversation happens. Richard Spencer is a white nationalist. He heads the small think tank the National Policy Institute. Want to know how Spencer came to hold these views, after growing up in mainstream Republican Texas? Catch his backstory on our next regular podcast. You’ll get that along with other post-election stories to provide reflection well beyond the vote count.
Le court article (en anglais) reproduit plus bas révèle la duplicité et le racisme de la France gaulliste. Hitler déclara la guerre à la France en 1940. Il l’envahit et en occupa la partie nord de l’Hexagone. Il céda le sud du pays au maréchal Philippe Pétain, fascisant et collaborateur, qui installa son régime à Vichy. A la tête des Forces françaises libres (FFL), général Charles de Gaulle engagea la lutte contre Pétain, dont il fut un protégé. Il trouva les bases arrière et les troupes de combat en Afrique centrale. Il lui fut impossible de mettre le pied à Dakar où Pierre Boisson, gouverneur général, s’était rallié à Vichy. Par contre, de Gaulle trouva l’appui tant cherché auprès de Félix Eboué — de la Guyane française, compatriote de René Maran et beau-père de Léopold Sédar Senghor. Eboué fut successivement gouverneur d’Oubangui-Chari (Centrafrique) et gouverneur général d’Afrique Equatoriale, avec siège à Brazzaville. Il coordonna donc l’effort de guerre anti-nazi en Afrique française. Et il fut l’hôte en 1944 de la réunion de Brazzaville, la première tentative de réforme du système colonial. La rencontre se tint deux ans avant le Congrès fondateur du Rassemblement démocratique africain (RDA) en octobre 1946 à Bamako, sous l’égide de Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Ce mouvement joua un rôle clé dans la lutte contre le colonialisme, après l’effondrement de l’Empire colonial de la 3è république française (1870-1940), et à l’orée de la 4è république (1946-1958).
Racisme et répression
Toutefois, une fois le nazisme vaincu et la paix revenue, général de Gaulle et les Alliés (Américains, Anglais) décideront d’exclure les troupes noires du défilé triomphal sur les Champs Elysées. L’évènement marqua la libération de Paris en 1945. Cette mesure fut un comble d’ingratitude et de racisme. Mais elle présageait surtout la série de répressions féroces perpétrées par la France dans l’immédiat après-guerre 1949-1945. Citons notamment :
A noter toutefois que Charles de Gaulle exprima sa reconnaissance posthume à Félix Eboué, qui mourut subitement en 1944. Il fit inhumer Eboué au Panthéon, où il repose aux côtés de grandes figures françaises : Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, André Malraux, etc.
Tierno S. Bah
The whitewashing of French forces in the liberation of Paris
A short account of how American and British commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris was orchestrated by a “whites only” force.
The BBC uncovered documents revealing that black colonial soldiers, who made up the majority of General De Gaulle’s Free French army were removed from the unit that led the Allied recapture of the city.
In the planning of the liberation exercise, Charles de Gaulle wanted to ensure his Free French force led the operation. He was anxious to assert his authority in post-Nazi France, to avoid the Resistance — much of which was made up by communists and working class radicals — taking power.
Allied High Command agreed, but on the condition that the division which did so should not contain any black soldiers.
Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, wrote in a confidential memo:
It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.
This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.
British General, Frederick Morgan wrote:
It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.
Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.
Due to the fact that African conscripts made up 65% of the Free French army, finding an all-white division proved impossible
Mike Thompson for the BBC reported that as a result:
Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.
When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.
Indeed, the shortage of white French soldiers was one of the reasons for using the 9th Company, of Spanish anarchist and Republican exiles in the mission.
Black fighters were not just barred from the military operation, some were also rejected from the liberation celebrations.
Dukson had enrolled in the French army in 1940, and lived underground during the Nazi occupation. He was part of the resistance, and played an important role during the Paris insurrection in 1944, where he was put in charge of the unit for his bravery. He was then promoted to Sublieutenant and was wounded in action when he was shot in the arm.
Shortly after the above photograph was taken, he was marched away from the event at gunpoint.
17,000 of France’s black soldiers had previously died resisting the Nazi invasion.
But after being excluded from the liberation, many of them just had to return their uniforms and were sent home. Even the method of repatriation was brutal.
In late November, 1944, around 1300 former Senegalese servicemen who had been prisoners of war in Europe and had been returned home protested against poor treatment and lack of pay. Dozens of them were massacred by French troops, and some of the survivors were subsequently jailed for 10 years.
To add insult to injury, their pensions were frozen in 1959.
One former French colonial soldier, Issa Cisse from Senegal, told the BBC:
We, the Senegalese, were commanded by the white French chiefs.
We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that said, do this, do that, and we did. France has not been grateful. Not at all.
This story of the racism, colonialism and violence of the Allies, is just one of many similar tales — like the Bengal famine, the Hitler Stalin pact, the British massacre of anti-fascist Greeks — which give weight to the perspective that World War II was not a fight against racism and for democracy, but more a battle between rival empires.
This idea is explored much further in the excellent book, Unpatriotic History of the Second World War, by James Heartfield .
Sources 1. Mike Thompson. “Paris liberation made ‘whites only’” 2. Matthew Cobb. The lost lion of Paris: the extraordinary story of George Dukson 3. Hervé Mbouguen. “1er Décembre 1944: Le massacre du Camp de Thiaroye”.
Barack Obama‘s black presidency has shocked the symbol system of American politics and made the adjective in “representative democracy” mean something quite different than in the past. Obama provoked great hope and fear about what a black presidency might mean to our democracy. His biracial roots and black identity have been a beguiling draw and also a spur to belligerent reaction. White and black folk, and brown and beige ones, too, have had their views of race and politics turned topsy-turvy. What many Americans of all colors believe is that race fundamentally defines America and is a dividing line drawn in blood through the nation’s moral map. Many metaphors of race drape the nation’s political framework: Barack Obama argued in his famous March 2008 race speech in Philadelphia that slavery is the nation’s original sin, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice claimed that racism is our country’s “birth defect.” 1 Race is the most durable link in the nation’s chain of destiny; it is at once a damning indictment of our quest for real democracy and true justice, and also a resilient category of individual and “group identity—one that cannot be reduced to either mere pathology or collective pride. Race is both the midwife of glorious achievements like jazz and the black freedom movement and the abortive instrument of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Race is the thing we cannot seem to do without—and the thing that we cannot seem to get rid of.
Race is the defining feature of our forty-fourth president’s two terms in office. Obama’s presidency is a lens to sharpen the details of American ideas about race and democracy. His presidency also raises the question of how much closer the election of a single black man may bring us to a more just and inclusive society. Barack Obama has finally made transparent the idea that our country cannot fully flourish without embracing a black identity that is the quintessential expression of the American character. What we all intuitively sense is that this presidency turns on their ear all the ways we have historically looked at presidencies, and perhaps, even more broadly, at our very democracy. Obama certainly bears what James Baldwin called “the burden of representation.” 2
That brilliant phrase refers to the weight and meaning of blackness for individual and collective racial bodies, and for literal and symbolic bodies too. This presidency, unlike all others before it, is analyzed and understood through our obsession with race in the body of the president himself and in the “psyche of the nation he governs. A black presidency is undeniably interracial in the same way that Obama’s body is composed of black and white genes. Obama’s presidency is the symbolic love child of Notes on the State of Virginia and The Fire Next Time 3. Thomas Jefferson and James Baldwin gaze at us from immortal perches separated by two centuries and two races locked in fateful struggle. But Jefferson and Baldwin are separated only by time and race; they are united in their unrelenting sexual and political preoccupation with the “other.” Jefferson and Baldwin can finally be joined in the full complexity of a conversation about race and American politics across time—a conversation that is constantly evoked but never fully engaged, as if it were held behind doors that are locked to everyone who would participate. And yet Obama is snared in a fascinating paradox: a man seen by many observers as the key to the locked doors of conversation about race is most reluctant to take charge and unlock the treasures of racial insight and wisdom.
What we learn about Obama says a lot about what we learn about ourselves; his racial reality is our racial reality. And it is never, ever static. That truth becomes apparent when we understand just how much we as a nation project our expectations and frustrations onto Obama’s presidency, and how he effortlessly represents our deepest doubts and our most resilient hopes. We must concentrate on what Obama says and does—on what speech he gives or what policy he enacts or fails to implement. We must also grapple with what Obama literally means, what his ideas amount to, what veins of ideology or sources of racial imagination he taps when he speaks, and where we travel as a nation by welcoming or resisting the social pathways his presence lays before us.
Obama’s presidency represents the paradox of American representation. Obama represents for all of us because he stands as the symbol of America to the world. He also represents to the American citizenry proof of progress in a nation that has never before embraced a black commander in chief. Yet a third sense of representation has a racial tinge, because Obama is also a representative of a black populace that, until his election, had been excluded from the highest reach of political representation. These three meanings of representation are the core of Obama’s paradoxical relationship to the citizens of the country he represents: he is at once a representative of the country, a representative of the change the country has endured, and a representative of the people to whom change has been long denied and for whom that change has meant the most.
Of course critics may read “black presidency” as a term that denies Obama the agency and individuality that mark genuine social and moral achievement. To say “black presidency” is already to have “reduced Obama’s presidency to something less than any other presidency. But the term also imbues the presidency for the first time with the true promise of democracy on which this country was founded. The paradox of representation is thus two-sided: a member of a minority group deliberately excluded from opportunity now stands at the peak of power to represent the nation. The idea of race both qualifies and enhances the representative stature of the presidency. When it comes to race, representation in America is always an internal barometer of privilege, through the exclusion of blacks and others, while at the same time, given how central to our lives race has become, it is also an external barometer of justice.
In The Black Presidency I examine Barack Obama’s political journey to tell a story about the politics of race in America—our racial limits and possibilities, our tortured past and our complicated present, our moral conflicts and aspirations, our cherished national myths, and our contradictory political behavior. The cultural impact of Obama’s lean black presidential frame will be far more enduring than partisan debates about his political career. Obama has changed the presidency itself; the ultimate seat of power has now been occupied for two terms by a man whose body translates in concrete terms our most precious democratic ideals. Obama gives African legs to the Declaration of Independence and a black face to the Constitution. Obama’s black presidency cannot be erased by political will even as Congress thwarts his legislation. The paradox of representation Obama symbolizes is not up for judicial review even as the Supreme Court troubles the black vote that helped to sweep him into office.
The existence of a black presidency signals for some people an end to racial categories that have plagued America since 1619. The post-racial urge rises in a society seeking to avoid the pain of overcoming its racist legacy. Obama’s presidency has defeated the post-racial myth, not with less blackness but with more of it, though it is the kind of blackness that insinuates and signifies while hiding in plain sight. The presidency is now permanently marked by difference, one that transcends Obama himself and may pave the way for a female president whose gender will be far less noteworthy for Obama’s having been the first black president.
A black presidency and the politics of a lived American democracy are like a transmission and its motor: the motor creates the power and the transmission makes the power usable. A black presidency necessarily engages the identity and meaning of an American democracy that was for so long an efficient engine for excluding black participation. Some may worry that the term “black presidency” is code for a delegitimized presidency that undermines democratic institutions and ideas. But Obama’s achievement gestures toward what the state had not allowed at the highest level before his emergence: equality of opportunity, fairness in democracy, and justice in society. Our system of government gains more legitimacy when it accommodates demands for justice and adjusts to the requirements of formal equality. Obama’s presidency, paradoxically, both critiques and affirms a political order that stymied the ambitions of other black politicians—an order he now heads.
I grapple in The Black Presidency with what happens to the psyche and racial identity of a nation when a two-century-old white monopoly on the presidency is broken for two consecutive terms. Then, too, we must ask how and what the blackness of Obama signifies to other blacks.
Obama’s eight years in office will be referred to as the only black presidency until another black person is elected. If the first line in his obituary reads “first (and perhaps only) black president,” is he forever fixed in the American mind with a racial reference that he labored hard to overcome? Obama lives with a burden and possibility that no other black person in our history, perhaps in world history, has ever had to shoulder.
A brief survey of other figures might shed light on Obama’s unique historical situation. Margaret Thatcher looms large 4. Thatcher-as-prime-minister is the nearest analogy we have to Obama-as-president. Of course, the biggest difference between Thatcher and Obama is that Thatcher was “overtly ideological and Obama is anti-ideological, the very reason he was electable. There are other differences. Is Thatcher’s premiership, these many years later, evaluated as “a woman’s leadership” or “the Thatcher Years”? For the first few years of her tenure, not to mention before her election, when she was opposition leader—imagine an American woman in the late seventies as the political and ideological leader of one of our two ruling parties—critics mused about how or whether her gender determined her style of governing. But Thatcher was so hard-line, in truth, heartless, in so many areas—in other words, so stereotypically “masculine”—that in time she was thought of no longer primarily as a woman but as a steely power player, albeit a female one: “the Iron Lady.” 5 (Can we imagine a time when Obama would not be seen as black but merely as president? For that matter, should Hillary Clinton or another woman become president, can we imagine her beyond gender on these shores?) Still, by the time she lost power in 1990, British women were not, because of her position, living in a post-gender world, and they still are not today 6. Yet some of us naïvely believe that Obama’s rise has removed race from the national landscape.
Other analogous figures come to mind, including Benjamin Disraeli, the first Jewish prime minister in the United Kingdom, and John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president. Each offers instructive similarities. Disraeli’s Jewish identity forced him to assure the largely Christian constituency in nineteenth-century Britain that he would not favor Jewish citizens 7. In the same vein, Obama has not favored blacks, opting, arguably, to underplay their interests in order to reinforce his racial neutrality. Kennedy assured American citizens that he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican 8. Obama went him one better: he pushed aside the former, if greatly weakened, black political pope, Jesse Jackson, and helped to enshrine a new one, Al Sharpton, while keeping at a distance the Congressional Black Caucus, the archbishops of black politics.
Disraeli and Kennedy had, as did Thatcher, their whiteness, an escape hatch that Obama lacks. If boxer Jack Johnson possessed “unforgivable blackness,” then Obama is plagued by inescapable blackness 9. Disraeli soothed the fears of the masses about his Jewishness, Thatcher toned down her femaleness, and Kennedy downplayed his Catholicism and emphasized instead the catholicity of his politics. All three appealed in their own way to the under-girding whiteness that bound them to their constituencies beyond gender and religious difference. Yet color trumps all for Obama; to have one’s presidency examined through the lens of race before any other is as different as Obama’s election itself.
Bill Clinton’s case is not quite like the other figures’, each of whom possesses a quality—ethnicity, gender, religion—that makes their political experiences analogous to Obama’s presidency. But the example of Clinton, steeped in the cultural signifiers of blackness rather than race, still offers an intriguing parallel to consider 10. Toni Morrison and Chris Rock dubbed Clinton the nation’s “first black president”; the white politician from Arkansas shrewdly manipulated the meanings and symbols of blackness to his advantage 11. Clinton strategically embraced blackness to gain the black vote while signaling white suburban voters that he would not bow to Jesse Jackson’s leadership 12. Before his impeachment, Clinton “signed a crime bill that sparked a deadly spike in black incarceration and signed into legislation welfare reform that cruelly cut black bodies unable to find living-wage work from public assistance 13. After his political trial by fire, Clinton embraced Jesse Jackson and played upon black sympathy as smoothly as he blew his sax. Clinton prefigured Obama’s even more complicated use of black ideas and black identity while occupying the Oval Office.
Obama, however, stands alone as the only black person to occupy the world’s pinnacle of power. What he does, says, and means is as important to the future as it is to our own moment. We must grapple with Obama in the present to set the baseline for his interpretation in the years to come. The Black Presidency is my contribution to that goal.
In an Oval Office interview the president granted me for this book, he told me, “In the same way that some of the people who don’t like me probably don’t like me because of race, there are some people who probably like me because of race and put up with me in ways that they wouldn’t if I weren’t African American—the folks in African American neighborhoods who identify with me even if they disagree with my policies. And my hope would be that when you wash out those aspects of it, that people are judging me on what I do as opposed to who I am.”
The Black Presidency wrestles with the words and actions of a singular human being who rose to the summit of American power; it also measures the racial currents his life captures and conveys, and offers the president informed and principled criticism.
Finally, this book asks, and engages, every complex question suggested by its subject. Is it reasonable to expect more than Obama has offered black people and the American public? What are the salient issues provoked by a black presidency, and how does it affect our ideas of race? How does Obama’s relationship to his black elders reflect generational conflicts in fighting for progress in black America? How does Obama’s racial identity influence our understanding of his duties? How does the way he speaks reflect the “black cultures that molded him? What can we learn from his major race speeches about the ideas that shaped him and the way he confronts racial crises? How does Obama respond to the plague of police brutality that has swept the nation—and the revived racial terror that stalks the land? How does Obama’s habit of scolding black America reinforce harmful ideas about black culture? How does Obama’s emphasis on law and order, personal responsibility, and respectability politics obscure the structural features of black suffering? What—and who—would it sound like if Obama cut loose and said what he really believes? In The Black Presidency I answer these and other questions while confronting Barack Obama’s—America’s first—black presidency.”
Notes 1. Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union,” in The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” ed. T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2009), p. 237; Condoleezza Rice, interview on Face the Nation, CBS, November 27, 2011, . 2. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 18. 3. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, annotated ed. (New York: Penguin Classics, 1998); James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963; repr., New York: Vintage, 1993).” 4. John Campbell, The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister, abridged ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 2011); Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013). 5. Moore, Margaret Thatcher, pp. 298–333; Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso Press, 1988). 6. When Baroness Thatcher died in 2013, President Obama issued an official statement and noted her gender as a defining element of her legacy: “As a grocer’s daughter who rose to become Britain’s first female prime minister, she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.” “Statement from the President on the Passing of Baroness Margaret Thatcher,” April 8, 2013. 7. Although Disraeli was baptized into the Church of England at the age of twelve, his Jewish heritage remained a central feature of his existence and identity. See Adam Kirsch, Benjamin Disraeli (New York: Schocken Books, 2008). Thanks to historian Gerald Horne for suggesting the parallel between Disraeli and Obama in a brief, serendipitous conversation in an airport. 8. Thomas J. Carty, A Catholic in the White House? Religion, Politics, and John F. Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). For a fascinating comparison of Obama and Kennedy, see Robert C. Smith, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and the Politics of Ethnic Incorporation and Avoidance (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013). 9. Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). 10. Dewayne Wickham, Bill Clinton and Black America (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2002). 11. Toni Morrison, “The Talk of the Town: Comment,” The New Yorker, October 5, 1998, pp. 31–32. Chris Rock said in an interview in the August 1998 issue of Vanity Fair that Clinton was “the first black president.” He also said that Clinton was “the most scrutinized man in history, just as a black person would be. He spends a hundred dollar bill, they hold it up to the light.” See Jonathan Tilove, “Before Bill Clinton Was the ‘First Black President,’” Newhouse News Service, March 6, 2007, . In 2008, in Time magazine, when asked if she regretted referring to Clinton as the first black president, Morrison said that people “misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.” See Toni Morrison, 10 Questions for Toni Morrison, Time, May 7, 2008. Indeed, in The New Yorker, Morrison wrote: “Years ago . . . one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. According to Morrison, Clinton’s blackness became even clearer when “the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the (impeachment) persecution.” Morrison, “Talk of the Town,” p. 32. During a 2008 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina televised live on CNN, journalist Joe Johns asked Obama if Clinton was the first black president. “Well, I think Bill Clinton did have an enormous affinity with the African-American community, and still does,” Obama said. “And I think that’s well earned . . . (O)ne of the things that I’m always inspired by—no, I’m—this I’m serious about. I’m always inspired by young men and women who grew up in the South when segregation was still taking place, when, you know, the transformations that are still incomplete but at least had begun had not yet begun. And to see (those) transformations in their own lives(,) I think that is powerful, and it is hopeful, because what it indicates is that people can change. “And each successive generation can, you know, create a different vision of how, you know, we have to treat each other. And I think Bill Clinton embodies that. I think he deserves credit for that. Now, I haven’t . . . I have to say that, you know, I would have to, you know, investigate more of Bill’s dancing abilities. You know, and some of this other stuff before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother.” Wolf Blitzer said, “Let’s let Senator Clinton weigh in on that.” Hillary Clinton then humorously retorted, “Well, I’m sure that can be arranged.” “Part 3 of CNN Democratic Presidential Debate,” January 21, 2008. 12. Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (New York: Free Press, 1995); Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: Reconstructing Race and Politics in the 21st Century (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002), pp. 77–84. 13. President Clinton admitted, both in a foreword to a book on criminal justice and in a speech before the 2015 NAACP convention—the day after President Obama at the same convention offered his landmark speech denouncing mass incarceration—that his policies had been wrong and harmful. “Plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long—we have overshot the mark. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we now have 25 percent of its prison population, and an emerging bipartisan consensus now understands the need to do better.” Clinton also argued that it is “time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn’t, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.” He said that “some are in prison who shouldn’t be, others are in for too long, and without a plan to educate, train, and reintegrate them into our communities, we all suffer.” See “William J. Clinton: Foreword,” April 27, 2015, (from the book Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, ed. Inimai Chettiar and Michael Waldman (New York: Brennan Center for Justice, 2015)). In his 2015 NAACP speech, Clinton conceded his error as president: “Yesterday, the president spoke a long time and very well on criminal justice reform. But I want to say a few words about it. Because I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it.” See Eric Levitz, “Bill Clinton Admits His Crime Law Made Mass Incarceration ‘Worse,’” MSNBC.com, July 15, 2015, . For the deleterious (racial) consequences of welfare reform, see, by Peter Edelman (who resigned as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services in September 1996 in protest of Clinton’s signing the welfare reform bill), “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done,” The Atlantic, March 1997. Also see Dylan Matthews, “Welfare Reform Took People Off the Rolls. It Might Have Also Shortened Their Lives,” Washington Post, June 18, 2013; Zenthia Prince, “Welfare Reform Garnered for Black Women a Hard Time and a Bad Name,” Afro, March 18, 2015, ; and Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” The Nation, September 6, 2012.”
The primary season precedes the general campaign for the 2016 presidential election. Launched February 1st with the Iowa caucus, it is now well under way. Votes have been cast in some 26 states, territories and the District of Colombia. Dozens of would-be presidents vie, in the shadow of the Democratic and Republican candidates, for the office of President of the United States of America. By the end of tomorrow, two or four peoples will emerge as the likely rivals for this year ballot.
On the Republican side, Donald J. Trump has rewritten the rules of the republican campaign. His relatively strong following has forced former Governor Jeb Bush out. For the Democrats, Bernie Sanders is the articulate messenger and challenger to Hillary Clinton’s aura of inevitability. Secretary Clinton is a political household name. She has, predictably, returned to the campaign trail where Barack Obama defeated her in 2007. While he was unknown to most Americans a few months ago, Bernie Sanders —the Independent Senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats on Capitol Hill—has launched a formidable movement. His message and oratory have reawakened the passion of millions of voters in a fashion reminiscent of Obama’s surge eight years ago.
The Chicagoan and the Vermonter share the ability to deliver an inspirational discourse that speaks to the hearts and minds of college students and young professionals.…
On May 11, 2011 Trump made an early exit from the 2012 race by releasing the following statement: “After considerable deliberation and reflection, I have decided not to pursue the office of the presidency. This decision does not come easily or without regret, especially when my potential candidacy continues to be validated by ranking at the top of the Republican contenders in polls across the country.”
However, Trump’s current political fortune seems to confirm his 2011 parting comment about his “ranking at the top.” Mr. Trump has repeatedly proven wrong the predictions of his eventual stumble and decline. He has risen to the top and stayed there ever since. His momentum continues to baffle the pundits, pollsters and the Republican establishment. The Party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan may well be forced to accept him as its nominee. Time will tell within 24 hours.
Here, I would like to draw the attention of the readers on three points:
Donald Trump, the African Union and the International Criminal Court
Should and can Africa be recolonized?
The connection between the “Birther” movement and Trump’s rise
When Trump echoes Tutu
Last month, Donald Trump condemned a proposed African withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. His words went viral on social media. Lumping all African presidents together, Mr. Trump strongly rejected the isolationist maneuver when he declared:
« When I saw them gang up against ICC yet they can’t even find an amicable solution for the ongoing quandary in Burundi, I thought to myself these people lack discipline and humane heart. They can’t lead by example. The only thing they are interested in is accumulating wealth from poor tax payers. Before they think of exiting from ICC, they should first restore peace in Burundi and other war-torn countries rather than gathering like hyenas with the aim of finishing the poor people. »
Mr. Trump is entitled to his opinion. And in this case, despite the scornful tone, he is right to reject the move outlined recently at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa. And those African regimes deserve to be denounced. the st he strenuously scold . Luckily, Africans didn’t have to wait for Donald’s reaction before registering their strong opposition to the anti-ICC initiative. In fact, it is gaining no traction and it could well be shelved for good. Already in 2014 someone with a higher moral authority than Mr. Trump can ever dream of, had rejected the idea. That’s what Rev. Desmond Tutu did when he wrote “In Africa Seeking a License To Kill.” The article denounces the suspicious mobiles and dreadful motivations of the proponents of the walk-out from the ICC. Consequently, Mr. Trump’s reply to the South African reporter merely echoes a better and previously view answer by the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Should and can Africa be recolonized?
In the same exchange, Donald Trump opined:
« It is shameful for African leaders to seek exit from ICC. In my view, these leaders want to have all the freedom to oppress their poor people without anyone asking them a question. I think there is no shortcut to maturity and in my view, Africa should be recolonized because Africans are still under slavery. Look at how those African leaders change constitutions in their favor so that they can be live presidents. They are all greedy and do not care about the common people. »
Mr. Trump’s message is bombastic and vain. Furthermore, it conveys:
An empty threat
An impossible proposition
1. Implicit racism
Mr. Trump’s provocative words harken back to the 19th century literature and propaganda of European imperialism and supremacist ideology. They conjure up Rudyard Kipling‘s racist White Man’s Burden slogan. They take us back to the so-called civilizing mission of the West. Unfortunately, the same world unleashed the hell and genocides of two planetary wars. And it is now forging ahead with globalization and its alarming Earth warming trend, with almost total disregard for the grave consequences entailed.
2. An empty threat
It is useless to brandish the specter of Africa’s recolonization. It is an empty threat given that Europe carried out only a token decolonization of the continent in the 1960s. In reality, Europe never relinquished its hegemonic stranglehold on Africa. To the contrary, they groomed and left behind surrogate regimes that —in collusion with the former foreign rulers— have fared worse that direct colonial domination. And even those strongmen and charismatic leaders who advocated Pan-Africanism did so with an explosive and self-defeating mixture of megalomania and repressive intolerance. Read Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, Victor Du Bois’s The Death of Kwame Nkrumah, Procès Habré, une justice au nom de l’Afrique, inter alia. Also, visit the Camp Boiro Memorial…
An impossible proposition
Last, but not least, a new colonization is so late as to be impossible. Times have changed. Donald Trump, himself, cannot bring back the “good” old days of straight colonialism and outright domination foreign domination. And even if Europe wanted to become again the Master of Africa, it can no longer afford it. With huge power come enormous responsibilities. But Europe does not have the resources to rule both and itself and the so-called Third World. Hence, it barricades itself into a fortress that is both incapable and unwilling to shelter in the millions of refugees —sailing from the former colonies— who are trying to reach its shores or to get a foothold onto its soil.
Obama and Trump
Notwithstanding his superficial foray into African affairs, Mr. Trump has a bigger fish to fry here in the USA. For the last five years, he has led the groundless suspicion that President Barack Obama was not born in America. Despite the release of official administrative birth certificate proving them wrong, Donald and the members of the so-called Birther movement claim that the sitting president was born in Kenya. The false rumor has gained a life of its own. And it is feeding part of the primary electoral campaign of Mr. Trump.
Yesterday, Jamelle Bouie, journalist at Slate, published “How Trump Happened”, an insightful analysis of the interaction between the anti-Obama zealots and the rise of Donald Trump. The full text of the article can be found below.
It’s not just anger over jobs and immigration. White voters hope Trump will restore the racial hierarchy upended by Barack Obama.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” goes the line attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Typically, you’ll find this pearl adorning a classroom or splashed across a motivational poster. But last month, on the eve of Super Tuesday—when a dozen states cast ballots for the Republican presidential nomination—you could find it on Donald Trump’s Instagram page, the caption to a photograph of a massive rally in Alabama the day before.
Perverse as it may seem for the belligerent real estate magnate to channel even apocryphal Gandhi wisdom, the line is apt. First, we did ignore him—as a buffoon who wouldn’t survive past the summer. Then, we laughed at him—as a buffoon who wouldn’t survive through fall. Eventually, Republicans began to fight him, terrified of his traction with voters. Now, he’s winning, with more votes and delegates than anyone left in the field. On the eve of another critical Tuesday slate of votes, Trump is on the verge of an even greater victory. Polls show him in command both in the smaller states that will award their delegates proportionally, and in the larger, winner-take-all prizes of Ohio and Florida. By Wednesday morning, Trump could be a stone’s throw from the Republican presidential nomination.
We’ve learned, by now, not to underestimate Donald Trump, but we’re still struggling to understand his rise. Why now? Why, when the United States is stronger and wealthier than it’s been since the Great Recession, are some voters suddenly receptive to nativist demagoguery? How is Trump—who has been described as a proto-fascist, if not an outright fascist—just a few steps away from leading the Grand Old Party?
For some on the left, Trump is the result of decades of divisive politics—the inevitable outcome of a Republican political strategy that stoked white racial resentment to win elections. “Trump’s campaign can best be understood not as an outlier but as the latest manifestation of the Southern Strategy, which the Republican Party has deployed for a half-century to shore up its support in the old Confederate states by appeals to racial resentment and white solidarity,” writes Jeet Heer in the New Republic.
For some on the right, Trump is the grassroots response to Republican elites who have abandoned their working-class voters to the whims of laissez-faire capitalism. “The Republican Party, and the conservative movement, offer next to nothing to working-class Trump supporters,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty in the Week. “There are no obvious conservative policies that will generate the sort of growth needed to raise the standard of living for these working-class voters.”
These explanations aren’t mutually exclusive; each touches on an important element of the Trump phenomenon. The Republican Party does have a tradition of harnessing white racial resentment to win elections, from the infamous “welfare queen” rhetoric of Ronald Reagan to Newt Gingrich labeling Barack Obama the “food stamp president” during the 2012 presidential election. GOP elites have failed to offer solutions to struggling working-class whites, who have suffered keenly from the collapse of the industrial economy. And it is true that rapid, disorienting economic and cultural change has led a substantial group of Americans to turn to someone who disdains feckless politicians and pledges to restore the country’s strength.
But none of these theories answer the question why now. Each of these forces has been in play for years. Wages for working-class Americans have long been stagnant, and the collapse of job opportunities for workers without a college degree was apparent in the 1990s, long before the Great Recession. What’s more, economic and social decline—as well as frustration with foreign competition, which Trump has channeled in his campaign—isn’t unique to white Americans. Millions of Americans—blacks and Latinos in particular—have faced declining economic prospects and social disintegration for years without turning to a demagogue like Trump.
Race plays a part in each of these analyses, but its role has not yet been central enough to our understanding of Trump’s rise. Not only does he lead a movement of almost exclusively disaffected whites, but he wins his strongest support in states and counties with the greatest amounts of racial polarization. Among white voters, higher levels of racial resentment have been shown to be associated with greater support for Trump.
All of which is to say that we’ve been missing the most important catalyst in Trump’s rise. What caused this fire to burn out of control? The answer, I think, is Barack Obama.
There have been some conservative writers who have tried to hang Trump’s success on the current president, pointing to his putatively extreme positions. But in most respects, Obama is a conventional politician—well within the center-left of the Democratic Party. Or at least, he’s governed in that mode, with an agenda that sits safely in the mainstream. Laws like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act weren’t impositions from the far left; they were built out of proposals from the right and left, passed by a majority of Congress that was elected to pursue solutions on health care and the economy. Barack Obama is many things, but conservative rhetoric aside, he’s no radical.
We can’t say the same for Obama as a political symbol, however. In a nation shaped and defined by a rigid racial hierarchy, his election was very much a radical event, in which a man from one of the nation’s lowest castes ascended to the summit of its political landscape. And he did so with heavy support from minorities: Asian Americans and Latinos were an important part of Obama’s coalition, and black Americans turned out at their highest numbers ever in 2008.
For liberal observers, this heralded a new, rising electorate, and—in theory—a durable majority. “The future in American politics belongs to the party that can win a more racially diverse, better educated, more metropolitan electorate,” wrote Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post after the 2008 election. “It belongs to Barack Obama’s Democrats.”
For millions of white Americans who weren’t attuned to growing diversity and cosmopolitanism, however, Obama was a shock, a figure who appeared out of nowhere to dominate the country’s political life. And with talk of an “emerging Democratic majority,” he presaged a time when their votes—which had elected George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—would no longer matter. More than simply “change,” Obama’s election felt like an inversion. When coupled with the broad decline in incomes and living standards caused by the Great Recession, it seemed to signal the end of a hierarchy that had always placed white Americans at the top, delivering status even when it couldn’t give material benefits.
In a 2011 paper, Robin DiAngelo—a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University—described a phenomenon she called “white fragility.” “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves,” she writes. “These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
DiAngelo was describing private behavior in the context of workplace diversity training, but her diagnosis holds insight for politics. You can read the rise of Obama and the projected future of a majority nonwhite America as a racial stress that produced a reaction from a number of white Americans—and forced them into a defensive crouch. You can see the maneuvering DiAngelo describes in the persistent belief that Obama is a Muslim—as recently as last fall, 29 percent of Americans held this view, against all evidence. It is a way to mark Obama as “other” in a society where explicit anti-black prejudice is publicly unacceptable. Consistent with this racialized fear and anxiety is the degree to which white Americans now see “reverse discrimination” as a serious problem in national life. For its American Values Survey, the Public Religion Research Institute asks respondents whether “discrimination against whites is a significant problem.” In last year’s survey, 43 percent of Americans—including 60 percent of working-class whites—said discrimination against whites had become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.
The anxieties DiAngelo describes, and the fears cataloged by the American Values Survey, have real political impact. In a 2014 study, political scientists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson tried to measure “perceived status threat” from a shift in racial demographics, surveying how people responded when informed that California is now home to more blacks, Hispanics, and Asians than non-Hispanic whites. In other words, how do white Americans react to unrelated political questions when exposed to news of a “majority-minority” future? The results were clear. “Making the majority-minority shift in California salient led politically unaffiliated white Americans to lean more toward the Republican Party,” wrote Craig and Richeson. Likewise, “making the changing national racial demographics salient led white Americans (regardless of political party affiliation) to endorse both race-related and relatively race-neutral conservative policy positions more strongly.”
The Obama era didn’t herald a post-racial America as much as it did a racialized one, where millions of whites were hyper-aware of and newly anxious about their racial status. For example, during a Marco Rubio rally before the New Hampshire primary in February, I spoke to a voter who, in her way, gave voice to this hyper-awareness. “I think he’s divided this country in many ways,” said Lori, an older white woman, of Obama. “I know in a lot of places in America there’s a divide in color … like, when I walk up to someone in the stores”—she looked at me to emphasize what she means—“I feel that they’re wondering if I like them. … I didn’t feel that before. I was accepting of everyone, and I hate that he brought that.”
This isn’t the first time in our history that whites have worried about losing their preeminent status. In the early 20th century, massive Southern and Eastern European immigration, as well as Chinese immigration in the American West, fueled nativism and white racism, and helped lead to the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan. The revived Klan organized millions of white Americans in a movement against immigrants, blacks, and religious minorities like Catholics. This, along with a broader nativist movement, had an enormous impact on American politics—entire states, like Indiana, were controlled by Klan-backed politicians while national lawmakers passed harsh, restrictive immigration laws. Our current burst of nativism and racial anxiety is proving to be a similarly potent force.
“The election of the country’s first black president had the ironic upshot of opening the door for old-fashioned racism to influence partisan preferences after it was long thought to be a spent force in American politics,” wrote Brown University political scientist Michael Tesler in a 2013 paper titled “The Return of Old Fashioned Racism to White Americans’ Partisan Preferences in the Early Obama Era.” For Tesler, “old-fashioned racism” isn’t a rhetorical term; it refers to specific beliefs about the biological and cultural inferiority of black Americans. His work suggests that there are some white Americans who, in his words, have “concerns about the leadership of a president from a racial group whom they consider to be intellectually and socially inferior.”
Other research points to the degree to which Obama’s election seems to have exacerbated racial animus among white voters. In a paper titled “The Impact of Anti-Black Racism on Approval of Barack Obama’s Job Performance and on Voting in the 2012 Presidential Election,” a trio of researchers found a substantial increase in the number of voters with anti-black attitudes, which rose from 47.6 percent in 2008 to 50.9 percent in 2012. “The proportion of people expressing anti-Black attitudes,” they write, “was 32 percent among Democrats, 48 percent among independents, and 79 percent among Republicans.”
What does anti-black racism in the Obama era have to do with Donald Trump, who crashed the 2016 campaign with a wave of anti-Latino rhetoric?
Trump may have started this campaign by denigrating Latinos and Muslims, but his first appearance in the Obama era was in the context of anti-black racism. In 2011, Trump took the “birtherism” conspiracy—the belief that Obama is foreign-born and thus an illegitimate president—and turned it into a full-fledged movement. Even now, his supporters believe Obama is illegitimate—62 percent say he is a Muslim, and 61 percent that he was born in another country. I spoke to a voter who echoed this sort of othering anti-Obama rhetoric in Las Vegas, at a Trump event the day before the Nevada caucuses. “In my opinion, Obama is the most anti-American president that I have experienced. He bows down to every other country. He puts other countries before America,” explained Martin, a staunch backer of the real estate mogul.
More recently, anti-black racism has returned to the fore, with behavior that attracts those who would like to see the old racial hierarchy restored. He shares racist memes on Twitter and has built a symbiotic relationship with white nationalists, refusing a chance to repudiate former Klan leader David Duke during one interview and offering his son for an interview with a white-nationalist radio host. And in recent weeks, Trump supporters have attacked black protesters at his rallies. At an event in North Carolina, a protester was punched in the face by an audience member, while another yelled a racist slur. Afterwards, Trump condoned the behavior. “He was swinging, he was hitting people, and the audience hit back,” he said, despite no evidence of any attack from the protester. “That’s what we need more of.”
In St. Louis, Missouri, a Trump rally collapsed into scuffles between supporters and opponents, with multiple arrests. At a Kentucky rally—the same day Trump promised to defend supporters in court if they fought with demonstrators—two protesters were assaulted by members of a white-supremacist group. On Friday evening, demonstrators in Chicago held a mass rally against an impending Trump event, forcing the campaign to cancel. Trump blamed the ensuing melee on “thugs.”
None of this is to discount the material facts behind Trump’s appeal to working-class whites. The collapse of the industrial economy in the wake of the Great Recession caused real devastation. The middle class has been losing ground for a long time, and there are few jobs for people without college degrees—or at least, few jobs that hold a path to mobility. Even in places where new factories have cropped up, unions are sparse and wages are low, following a race-to-the-bottom among the towns and cities that vie for the remaining manufacturing jobs. When economic desperation meets hopelessness—as we saw in the 1980s, when an earlier wave of de-industrialization ravaged the inner cities—the results are tragic.
The effects of these trends were highlighted in a widely analyzed study released last fall that showed rising mortality rates among middle- and working-class white Americans, the group that makes up Trump’s main body of support. Princeton University professor Anne Case and co-author Angus Deaton found that white working-class Americans are increasingly dying from suicide, alcohol abuse, and drugs. “In 1999,” writes Case for Quartz, “people in this group died from accidental drug and alcohol poisonings at four times the rate of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or more. By 2013, they were dying at seven times the rate of their better-educated peers. In 2013, they also committed suicide at more than twice the rate of people with more education, and died from alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis at five times the rate of those with a college degree.”
These spikes in mortality are so large that, for whites aged 45 to 54, they’ve lowered overall life expectancy. Young whites, meanwhile, face rising rates of addiction and a corresponding increase in mortality.
Canvas a Trump event and you’ll meet people who have seen these changes up close. They are teachers, police officers, small-business owners, and city employees who hold the closest thing to middle-class jobs in the rural towns and older suburbs where Trump draws his most ardent support. In the Michigan primary, for example, Trump won most of his votes from voters with incomes less than $50,000; in New Hampshire, he dominated among voters making less than $100,000. Everywhere, in fact, Trump is winning Republicans with modest middle-class incomes.
These somewhat better-off Americans have seen their friends and family fall into dependency, whether to drugs or alcohol or welfare. They are both sympathetic to this plight—which is why Trump’s call for more help for veterans and seniors resonates with them—but also frustrated and angry. The country, and its leaders, made a promise: If you worked hard, you would get ahead. But that didn’t happen. Instead, for millions of Americans, it was the reverse: They worked hard and fell behind. They’re afraid, for themselves and for their children. Trump speaks for them. “What do we all want?” Trump asked at a rally on the eve of the Nevada caucus. “We want security. We want a strong country.” Those who feel insecurity most acutely have turned out to back the real estate mogul en masse.
With that said, perceptions of race inform their embrace of Trump as well. In the recent past, holding the favored spot in our racial hierarchy brought benefits. As historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson details in When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, being white was traditionally a pathway to middle-class security, the key that won access to vital mortgage and education programs, as the federal government worked to build a white middle-class in the middle part of the 20th century. Even after the civil rights movement and the end of formal discrimination against black Americans, it was still true that being white and middle-class offered protection from the worst of our economy’s ravages. Drugs, ghettos, and dependency existed among whites in pockets of the country, but they were popularly understood as black and Latino problems, not white ones. Now, that isn’t true. Now, middle-class whites face addiction and dependence, which adds a racial element to economic anxiety, as the security provided by whiteness no longer exists for many Americans.
There are objections to this narrative. It’s possible, for example, that Obama’s decision to push forward with liberal policies and to galvanize a liberal base produced an inevitable partisan backlash, of which Trump is part. Had Obama governed more moderately, had he tried to find a space in his coalition for white working-class voters, then Trumpism might have stayed in the deep.
But this analysis ignores the extent to which Trump reflects specific choices by Republican and conservative elites. From indulging anti-Obama conspiracy theories to attacking him as an enemy of the United States, conservatives chose to nurture resentment and anxiety and distill it into something potent. You can draw a direct line to the rise of Trump from the racial hysteria of talk radio—where figures like Rush Limbaugh, a Trump booster, warned that Obama would turn the world upside down. “The days of [minorities] not having any power are over and they are angry,” said Limbaugh to his audience. “They want to use their power as a means of retribution.”
It also ignores the degree to which these voters likely would have found this hypothetical partnership inimical to their conception of their interests. Even if Obama had reached out, they would be mere partners in a larger coalition, when what they want is to be its driving force. Trump speaks to that desire, signaling—in ways subtle and otherwise—that he plans to “Make America Great Again” by making the white American worker the center of his universe.
Throughout our history, a substantial minority of whites has responded to America’s always-shifting racial and economic terrain with a primal fear of being dominated, of finding themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy. It’s one of the strongest forces in American life, and politicians and demagogues of many partisan stripes channeled it long before Donald Trump; it’s so strong that researchers have found a direct and robust connection between a given county’s proportion of enslaved people before emancipation and its present-day Republican vote share. The more slaves held in a given area, the more Republican votes.
The good news is that movements like Trump’s tend to fade away. The bad news is that, even in defeat, they are influential. One antecedent to Trump—Alabama Gov. George Wallace—never won a national party nomination. But he had massive impact on the direction of national politics, giving Richard Nixon raw materials for his “Southern Strategy” of racial resentment that would shape and define American politics for the next four decades.
For Americans opposed to Trump, it’s tempting to believe that his base is a shrinking part of America; that these are the death throes of racial reaction. Eventually, goes the thinking, they’ll fade from view too.
That is wishful thinking. America is a diverse country. But it’s still a predominantly white one, where a Trumpist movement can still encompass millions of voters. And “eventually” might be a while. In the space between now and then, Trumpism—the potent mix of open prejudice, nationalist aggression, and heterodox economic policy—could thrive. In fact, it likely will, since the trends that produced Trump—a brittle economy, an ailing white working-class, an insecure white middle-class, a rising nonwhite population, political gridlock, and growing minority political power—are ongoing.
Given the more than uphill climb he would face in a general election, Trump the person might have an expiration date. But Trumpism will enter the firmament of modern politics, a powerful current that will shape the future of the Republican Party, and the Democratic one too. Trump came on the stage as a clown. But whenever he leaves, he’ll do it as a new icon of a familiar movement in American life.