Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

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.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker

Jeanne-Martin Cissé (1926-2017)

Jeanne Martin Cissé et Sékou Touré, circa 1970
Jeanne Martin Cissé et Sékou Touré, vers 1970

Sous la plume de François-Xavier Freland Jeune Afrique reprend la nouvelle de la mort de Jeanne-Martin Cissé (1926-2017). Reflétant diverses sources d’information, l’hebdomadaire évoque, en quelque 532 mots, la vie de cette compagne de Sékou Touré.

  1. On y relève ainsi le tableau du cadre familial au crépuscule de la vie à Conakry. Il n’y est question toutefois que des filles de la disparue, alors qu’au moins trois de ses enfants sont des hommes. L’aîné, Cheick Mohammed ‘Papus’ Camara, est un de mes promotionnaires aux lycées de Conakry et de Labé. Notre dernière rencontre, vite transformée en une longue, amicale et intéressante conversation, remonte à 2003 à Dakar.
  2. Mais l’auteur reste vague sur la naissance, l’éducation et l’adolescence : noms et occupation des parents, un brin de généalogie, postes d’enseignement. Il néglige, par exemple, un détail important, à savoir comment peut-on naître “dans une famille musulmane modeste d’origine Soussou et Malinké” et s’appeler Jeanne-Martin ?
  3. L’article maquille et embellit le passage sur “la célèbre école normale de Rufisque”,  qu’il présente comme étant  un établissement “d’élite féminine qui s’était employée à faire de ces élèves venues de toutes l’Afrique coloniale française de futures enseignantes, attachées à leur africanité.” François-Xavier Freland aurait dû mettre un peu d’eau dans son vin, car dans l’ensemble le palmarès de l’école française n’est pas du tout rose. Surtout sous la Troisième République (1870-1940) qui imposa le déshumanisant Empire colonial et l”abominable régime de l’Indigénat.
  4. François-Xavier glisse le nom de Germaine Le Goff sans préciser qu’il est l’auteur de la biographie intitulée L’Africaine blanche (1891-1986) : Germaine Le Goff, éducatrice mythique.  Il aurait dû apporter la précision, ne serait-ce que pour élargir l’horizon des lecteurs.
  5. Certaines camarades de formation de Jeanne-Martin sont mieux introduites, notamment avec la mention d’Une si longue lettre, l’oeuvre principale de Mariama Bâ.
  6. Le portrait matrimonial de Jeanne-Martin se limite à son  mariage avec Bansoumane Touré. Cette victime du Camp Boiro fut en réalité le second époux de Mme. Jeanne. Sur les circonstances de la disparition de Bansoumane à la Prison de Kindia, lire Kindo Touré “La mort de Ban Ansoumane Touré”.
  7. Dans sa biographie de Sékou Touré André Lewin indique, à juste titre, que le premier mari de Jeanne-Martin s’appelait Camara. Malheureusement, il omet le prénom du défunt, qui mourut victime d’un accident de circulation en 1958. Lire Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922-1984). De Gaulle à Conakry,  25/26 août 1958 (volume 2, chapitre 25)
  8. L’article présente Bansoumane Touré comme “un des fondateurs du Parti Démocrate Guinéen (PDG) animé par Sékou Touré. Très vite, elle (Jeanne-Martin) milite pour l’indépendance et œuvre pour l’émancipation des femmes en Afrique.” L’auteur va vite en besogne et commet ici deux erreurs aussi gratuites que légères :
    (a) Bansoumane ne figure pas parmi les membres fondateurs du PDG-RDA
    (b) Au lendemain de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, les pionniers de l’activité politique visaient d’abord l’autonomie interne. Le régime colonial fit la sourde oreille et traîna la savate jusqu’en 1956, date de promulgation de la loi-cadre Gaston Deferre. Mais c’était trop tard. Le Viet-Minh avait déjà vaincu des milliers de troupes françaises en 1954 à Dien Bien Phu. Cette cinglante défaite militaire ainsi que le déclenchement de la guerre d’Indépendance d’Algérie accélérèrent le cours de l’Histoire. Les protectorats du Maroc et de la Tunisie devinrent des états souverains en 1956. En mai 1958, l’armée imposa le Général Charles de Gaulle au Parlement français. Cherchant à retarder l’implosion du domaine colonial de la France, le vieux guerrier,  intellectuel et homme d’Etat organisa le référendum de 1958 autour d’une nouvelle Constitution. Le projet de loi fondamentale proposait, entre autres, l’abolition de l’instable 4ème république (en place depuis 1946), l’avènement de l’actuelle 5è république,  et l’instauration de la Communauté franco-africaine, en lieu et place de l’Union française, elle-même héritière de l’Empire colonial.
  9. L’auteur effleure ensuite la carrière onusienne de Jeanne-Martin. François-Xavier Freland écrit : “… elle est désignée en 1972 au poste de représentante permanente de la Guinée aux Nations unies, et devient … même présidente du Conseil de Sécurité de l’ONU, son pays étant alors membre non permanent de ce comité.”
    Lire également “Jeanne-Martin Cissé accepte une invitation de Louis de Guiringaud, ambassadeur de France auprès des Nations Unies”, A. Lewin, volume 6, chapitre 68
    Aucun mot sur Telli Diallo et Marof Achkar, autrement plus efficients et prestigieux que l’ambassadrice Cissé. Silence total aussi sur le sort des proches de Madame Sow Nima Bâ, ancienne détenue du Camp Boiro et dont Sékou Touré décima la famille en faisant assassiner :

Et en condamnant à mort par contumace le frère cadet, Bâ Mamadou.

  1. L’article cite Hadja Nima en ces termes : « Mais la période des purges l’avait rendu triste. » Peu importe que ma belle-soeur ait prononcé des mots. Le fait est qu’ils sont en porte-à-faux avec la réalité post-sékoutouréenne.
  2. Dirigeante ddu Conseil national des Femmes de Guinée, membre du Comité central du Parti démocratique de Guinée, membre du Burean politique national et du Gouvernement, feue Jeanne-Martin fut, de bout en bout,  une collaboratrice fidèle et une porte-parole aussi “impénitente et non-repentante” de la dictature de Sékou Touré que Mme. Andrée Touré.

Pour conclure, je me propose de lire La fille du Milo. Après quoi, je  ferai une suite à cet article.

Tierno S. Bah

Gambia, Och-Ziff, Guinea, Niger, Chad, RDC

Former president Yahya Jammeh departs Banjul, Jan. 21
Former president Yahya Jammeh departs Banjul, Jan. 21

President Alpha Condé stepped  in the Gambian post-electoral crisis at the last minute. He and Mauritanian president “convinced” former president Yahya Jammeh to yield to President Adama Barrow  and head into exile.
In Conakry, people quickly credited President Condé, deeming it a foreign policy victory. Unfortunately, they have little to say in support of their allegation.  Actually, Yahya was caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, he had long lost credibility and now the vote of the majority of citizens. On the other, and if it came to that, ECOWAS military forces were determined to remove Mr. Jammeh from the presidential palace.

It appears now that all Jammeh wanted was to keep his stolen money and ill-gotten luxury goods. He has amassed immense personal wealth at the expense of the Gambian people.

Tactically though, ECOWAS agreed to last minute negotiations that involved General Idriss Déby Itno, president of Chad since 1990, who offered a freight plane to transport Yahya cherished possessions to Malabo.
Once that deal was sealed, Jammeh, escorted by Alpha Condé, flew out of Banjul into exile in Equatorial Guinea.

Mindful of Jammeh’s post-electoral illegitimacy and greedy bargaining, African presidents simply acknowledged his departure. They did not celebrate the event, nor did they use it as a domestic politics scoring game. Only Alpha Condé and his cronies  resorted to such gimmicks and nonsense.

A case in point, President has appointed Tibou Kamara —Yahya Jammeh brother-in-law— as one of his many counselors, an empty title due to the lack of functions. Yesterday, political enemies, the two men are now allies. The pair has come to realize that the same personal and sterile ambition drives them. Birds of the same feathers flock together.

Anyhow, there are lessons to be learned from African dictators’ fall from grace. In 2014, it was the popular insurrection against Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso. And now, after a stunning electoral defeat, Yahya Jammeh reneged and tried to hang on to power. ECOWAS, the AU and the UN would have none of it.

Mr. Condé has been dogged lately by revelations about his own suspicious wheeling and dealing in the Simandou  corruption scandal.

A federal court in Brooklyn has charged Michael Cohen and Vanja Baros, executives of Hedge Fund giant Och-Ziff, for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In 2010 Och-Ziff wired millions of dollars to the Swiss bank account of a French lobbyist, and former adviser to President Condé.
That payment has been linked to other Och-Ziff corruption allegations in Niger, Chad  and the DRC. Will Alpha Condé face a political fallout and judicial implications for his financial schemes?

Time will tell.

Meanwhile, just like Blaise and Yahya before hime, Alpha should remember this: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” (Abraham Lincoln)

Tierno S. Bah


Hedge Fund Execs Charged in Multi-Million Dollar Bribery Scheme

U.S. securities regulators on Thursday accused two former executives at hedge fund Och-Ziff Capital Management of masterminding a far-reaching scheme to pay tens of millions of dollars in bribes to African officials.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Brooklyn, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused Michael Cohen, who headed Och-Ziff’s European office, and Vanja Baros, a former analyst, of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

The lawsuit came after Och-Ziff agreed in September to pay $412 million to resolve U.S. investigations relating to the hedge fund’s role in bribing officials in several African countries.

That settlement led to a subsidiary of Och-Ziff pleading guilty to participating in a scheme to bribe officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in what prosecutors said marked the first U.S. foreign bribery case against a hedge fund.

In its lawsuit, the SEC said Cohen, 45, and Baros, 44, from 2007 to 2012 caused bribes to be paid to officials in Libya, Chad, Niger, Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo through agents, intermediaries, and business partners.

Those bribes were paid to secure a $300 million investment from the Libyan Investment Authority sovereign wealth fund; an investment in a Libyan real estate development project; and to secure mining deals, the SEC said.

Ronald White, a lawyer Cohen, said in a statement he “has done nothing wrong and is confident that when all the evidence is presented, it will be shown that the SEC’s civil charges are baseless.”

A lawyer for Baros did not immediately respond to requests for comment. An Och-Ziff spokesman declined to comment.

In settling in September, Och-Ziff entered a deferred prosecution agreement, in which charges related to conduct in several countries would be dropped after three years if it followed the deal’s terms.

Och-Ziff CEO Daniel Och meanwhile agreed with the SEC to pay $2.17 million, and the commission also settled with the company’s chief financial officer.

To date, only one individual has been criminally charged in connection with the probe, Samuel Mebiame, a son of the late former Gabon Prime Minister Leon Mebiame who prosecutors say acted as a “fixer” for a joint-venture involving Och-Ziff.

In December, Mebiame pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, admitting he schemed to provide “improper benefits” to officials in African countries such as Guinea in exchange for obtaining business opportunities.

Reuters

White Nationalism: Conversation, No Dialog

John Hope Franklin & Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom A History of African Americans
John Hope Franklin & Alfred A. Moss Jr. From Slavery to Freedom A History of African Americans. McGraw-Hill; 9th edition, 2010. 736 pages
President Barack Obama and Pr. John Hope Franklin
President Barack Obama and Pr. John Hope Franklin

From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans stands as the magisterial study of the American black experience by the late Pr. John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) and Pr. Alfred A. Moss Jr. It was a revelation when it appeared in 1947. He followed up with several and many articles on Reconstruction, the martial culture of the antebellum South, runaway slaves and other subjects. Each one is a model of graceful prose, meticulously documented and free of bias or cant. The quality of Mr. Franklin’s writings made him the first black chairman of a history department at a predominantly white institution, Brooklyn College, in 1956. Later came appointments at the University of Chicago and Duke, and teaching assignments at Howard and Cambridge universities and elsewhere. Along the way he assisted Thurgood Marshall’s legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, served in government and accumulated more academic honors than we have space to mention. In 1995, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 I am reacting here briefly to the transcript of the interview called “A Frank Conversation with a White Nationalist.” Although not not an empty talk the exchange reads like a polite but vague conversation. It fails to turn into an articulate and meaningful dialog. Its flaw lays in its weakness and even lack of historical perspective.

It is true that the journalist, Al Letson, and his interlocutor, Richard Spencer, met the day after the Republican candidate’s shocking Electoral College victory that made Donald Trump president-elect of the USA.
However, the atmosphere of the electoral upset, it was incumbent on them to acknowledge and explore better the complexities of such loaded topics as identity, race, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. Instead, they went for clichés, wrong assumptions, and somewhat shallow personal stories.

For instance, the two interlocutors agree —not surprisingly— on the contribution of Blacks in the making of American culture. Unfortunately, and due to its entertainment undertones —not to forget the association with sports—, this recognition is nothing but a stereotype. Because we know that real power is not in music and athletic achievement; it is in economics, finances, banking, science, and technology.
So what do I see as hits and misses by Al Letson and Richard Spencer respectively?

Capturing Fugitive Slaves in California, ca. 1856
Capturing Fugitive Slaves in California, ca. 1856

Al Letson

As an investigative journalist, Mr. Letson did not bring up the stronger arguments. Instead, he limited himself in reminding Richard Spencer of the Ku Klux-Klan and its terrorist lynching raids. Oddly, a word search of the interview show that Al fails to mention Slavery altogether. Yet, African bondage has been often and appropriately called America’s original sin, by President Obama. Is it merely coincidental that it was during his stewardship that such movies as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Selma, etc., were produced and realized? Probably not. And it was obviously not serendipity but rather a fitting reunion when former President G.W. Bush joined Obama in the inauguration of the African-American Museum of History and Culture back in September The latter finished the project that the former had started.
Therefore, African-American media professionals like Al Letson ought to study as hard as they can African-American history, sociology, economy, political science, linguistics, etc. Such an activity nurtures the mind and helps—among other things—to debunk the myths of white supremacy. They  prepare and empower African-American scholars, journalists and artists as they seek to engage and refute the views of the likes of Richard Spencer.

The other Achille’s heel  in Al Letson argumentation is that he does not draw Richard Spencer’s attention that oppression engenders  resistance and rebellion. And that African-Americans stood up against slavery. They fought heroically to end it during the Civil War. They challenged Jim Crow. Under the leadership of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others, they defeated legal segregation in 1964 (Civil Rights Act) and in 1965 (Voting Rights Act). Incidentally, Richard Spencer refers to the 1964 legislation as Immigration. That’s a mistake.
The bottom line is that, through and through, Blacks were neither submissive nor passive. Strong personalities and fearless leaders emerged and blazed the trail of no-surrender, insurrection and entrepreneurship right in Antebellum America. Among them Toussaint-Louverture (Haiti), Abdul-Rahman (from my native Fuuta-Jalon), Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and so many others.Their successors fought for the end of the abomination of slavery and to assert their humanity. And Whites and Jews showed solidarity all along. Quakers, intellectuals, politicians joined the anti-slavery movement, which peaked with John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.…

Richard Spencer

 Mr. Spencer’s intellectual handicap and judgemental predicaments are many. I list here some of them.

First, he suffers from the delusion that Whites, Blacks, Asians, etc. constitute separate races. Never mind that such a prejudice is deep-seated. Genomics has dispelled it  thoroughly. There is only one species, and that’s Humans, aka Homo sapiens? Even it still applies in culture, politics and in administration, it does not hold water in nature and in biological sciences.

Second, Richard has the illusion that Whites are homogeneous. But history belies that wrong premise. The elites, rulers and states of Germanic, Latin and Slavs peoples and countries have fought many a battle for political and   economic power, as well as for cultural dominance. Three examples:

  • Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812
  • His battle against Wellington in Waterloo (1815)
  • Hiter’s occupation of Poland, France, and Nazi partition of the latter in two territories during World War II
  • …………………………………………………

Richard Spencer does not seem to know that without African —slave and colonial—labor, neither Europe nor America would have gained such prosperity. He ought to read Edward Baptiste’s The Half Has Never Been Told. Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. And  Thomas Piketty. Capital in the 21st Century.

Third, Richard Spencer idealizes and idolizes the history of Europe. He is entitled to his opinion, but not to the facts. Before it spread its tentacles on the Southern Hemisphere of the Globe, capitalism began to wreak havoc at home. Again Richard should read the masterpieces of Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and other works that depict the miseries brought upon Europe by the rise of capitalism. Writing in the 20th century, historian Eric Hobsbawn has laid bare the lows and highs of the Industrial Revolution.

Fourth, for all its scientific and cultural achievements Europe was the matrix of the first (1914-1918) and the second (1939-1945) World Wars. The horrors of WWI led European artists, writers and poets to express their rejection of Western civilization and to seek inspiration elsewhere. Their quest was fulfilled by the so-called primitive arts of Africa and Oceania. Thus was born surrealism, dadaism. Then the Harlem Renaissance flourished. It carried on and elevated centuries of blacks’ struggled against racism and exclusion in the United States of America. Young African and Caribbean scholars in Paris followed suit with the Négritude movement, a trailblazer of the emancipation of Africa from colonial rule.… In essence, the Surrealism—Harlem Renaissance—Négritude chain underscores how  societies and people  are interrelated and interdependent, irrespective of skin color or “racial” background… And, in particular, it illustrates the ties that bind the intelligentsia, as well as literary, artistic and scientific trends and currents, in time and space.
That said, on January 20, 2017 Mr. Trump will have executive control of the world’s largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Should that lethal armory be—accidentally or willfully—unleashed and retaliated against, it will wipe human life off the planet, sparing no one, including the advocates of racial supremacy or ethnic superiority.

In the end, Al Letson does not introduce Richard Spencer adequately to the audience of his podcast. We are only told that he was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Texas, and that he likes mountain biking! That’s not enough to profile the carrier of a hostile ideology. The interview could have disclosed further information about the white nationalist’s education, profession, intellectual background and political connections.

But since Al Leston and Richard Spencer remain in touch, let’s hope to learn more about this supporter of president-elect Donald Trump .

Tierno S. Bah

Conversation with a White Nationalist

Richard Spencer, White nationalist
Richard Spencer, White nationalist

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.

Al Letson
Al Letson

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.

Thanks for listening…

Al Letson
Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.