What Moves us to Action

Economic decisions drive human decision making more than we like to admit. We are not often driven and motivated by causes that are larger than ourselves, and at the end of the day, we fall back on economic decisions and can’t seem to escape questions about money, about possessions, and about whether we as individuals get more or less from a decision. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow looks at how economic decisions are shaping the criminal justice system and finds that concerns about fairness and justice fall short of the impact of economic outcomes when we think about how the system should change. As an American, I want to believe that things such as a concern for individuals and families should drive our considerations of how the criminal justice system operates, but nevertheless, these factors do not seem to be able to influence the system the way that economic arguments are able to. Alexander writes,

“Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed.”

I think that Alexander’s quote ties in nicely with a lesson from John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series, Seeing White. Biewen looked at the history of slavery, especially American slavery, and explains the ways in which slavery and racism followed from the desire for economic exploitation. People had the ability and opportunity to subjugate others and to exploit people for economic purposes. From that exploitation followed excuses to rationalize those exploitative behaviors. Racism, in other words, followed from a desire to subjugate other people and to hold them down for economic benefit.

The war on drugs and our system of policing has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have incarcerated black and brown men to a much greater degree than we have arrested white men, but crime and drug use rates between white men and black men are almost identical. Alexander explains that we see changes in the criminal justice system in states where maintaining massive prison populations is becoming economically unsustainable. We are not changing our behavior out of moral principles, but out of economic hardships.

Looking at Alexander’s and Biewen’s work together reveals a common theme. Racial exploitation and subjugation follow economic incentives, and racial parity and justice is only possible in our country today if it is obviously economically beneficial. Our attitudes about others, about fairness, about justice, and about race take a back seat to our attitudes about our personal economic situation, allowing us to maintain mass incarceration systems today, and allowing our nation’s founders to exploit slaves two hundred years ago.

The Onset of the Civil War

I heard recently in a podcast that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the culture war that followed. How we remember the civil war and think about the people who fought on both sides of the war is complex, and there is no easy way to remember and truly understand the history of slavery in our country. Many people in our country have a heritage that runs back to the colonial period prior to the civil war, and for many the iconography of the confederacy is a representation of that heritage. Unfortunately, that iconography, the men and women of that time, and the heritage represented cannot be untangled from the legal ownership and subjugation of human beings. There certainly had been slavery throughout the world before the United States’ Civil War, and outlawing slavery at the time our constitution was written would have required a monarch (something desperately avoided by our founders), but by the time the Civil War occurred, the legitimacy of owning people was very much in doubt. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coats looks at the onset of the Civil War, and why slavery was worth protecting for white men and women in the South.

 

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies —cotton—was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ declared Mississippi as it left the Union, ‘the greatest material interest of the world.'”

 

The right that Southern states wanted to protect was the right for white men and women to own black people as property. The South won a cultural war in changing the meaning and purpose behind the Civil War and throughout reconstruction and the early 1900s this idea was able to spread and gained legitimacy. When we reflect back on the period we should recognize that our history was not guided by angels but shaped by human beings. We made mistakes, we acted in self-interest, and we found ways to excuse our behaviors. We allowed the exploitation of human beings to form the backbone of our greatness, and then we made excuses to allow such exploitation to persist. As deplorable as our humanity may have been, we can still look back and celebrate the best part of our history, but we should not work to salvage memories of the worst part of our history. We can celebrate what men like Washington and Jefferson accomplished despite the fact that they owned slaves, but we should not revere the Confederacy or men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Alexander Stephenson who were major players in history precisely because they owned slaves and fought for the right to continue to subjugate human beings as property. The iconography of the civil war should be understood not as pride in being southern, but as the very battle symbol that men wielded in the fight to maintain the exploitation of black men and women. We cannot compartmentalize the state’s right that the south fought for, and the iconography of the time.

Grand Theories of Everything

In the United States we have often seen our country as destined for greatness and we often see great success as a guarantee in our own lives. There is something special about being American and about living in the middle or upper class in our society. Many people see their success and place in society as evidence of their own greatness, ignoring the fact that much of their success is random. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at these perspectives in his book, Between the World and Me, and examines the way that our history set up our country at the expense of black people.

 

In a letter to his son looking at national attitudes today he writes, “We live in a ‘goal-oriented’ era. Our media vocabulary is full of hot takes, big ideas, and grand theories of everything. But some time ago I rejected magic in all its forms. This rejection was a gift from your grandparents, who never tried to console me with ideas of an afterlife and were skeptical of preordained American glory.” Coats is arguing that the general approach most people have when looking at America, our nation’s role in the world, and our lives within our country is to see our success as a guarantee, somehow guided by a divine plan. In reality, according to Coats, American success is in no way guaranteed, and was kickstarted two hundred years ago by the exploitation of slave labor. “America understands itself as God’s handiwork,” he writes, “but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of men.”

 

Coats looks at the exploitation of slaves and the discrimination and inequities suffered by black men and women brought to this continent during the slave trade and sees connections to our lives today. After slavery ended, black men and women were still exploited in many ways, denied opportunities, restricted in where they could live, and often not able to advance in careers. The criminal justice system often singled out black men for crimes that occurred in equal numbers between black and white men, limiting freedoms and creating a caste-like system in our country.

 

It was this historical vision that eliminated the view of America as a country destined for greatness. Coats absolutely sees great possibilities for our country, but his visions are sobered by the realization that American exceptionalism is partly random and partly driven by the huge sacrifices and work of the oppressed. There is no mystical force pushing any of us individually or collectively toward greatness, there are only our decisions, our reactions, and the tremendous work of only a few to propel us.

 

When you abandon religious views, you stop asking how things are ‘supposed’ to turn out, and you give up the question of why a higher power would decide that things ‘should’ be certain way. This perspective contributes to Coats’ ability to see the world clearly, and to see not just the tremendous decisions and incredible men that led our country from its inception, but also the lives lost and the injustice suffered by countless men and women who have held up our nation all while being scorned and rejected. His views align with those of Joseph Ellis, whose book The Quartet I recently finished. Ellis looked at how four men, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay brought about the constitution as we know it today, and while he did not focus on the inequities of slavery, he did acknowledge how such a system allowed for our countries founding, and he did acknowledge that the visions and efforts of a few drove the true change and better future of our country. The decisions of our founding fathers were certainly, in Ellis’ view, not providential (as we like to believe looking back at history) but political and human, and they made decisions which sealed the fate of black men and women and elevated the opportunities for white men and women. Coats and Ellis both understood that it was luck, decisions, and efforts which afforded our country the comfort experienced today, not a pre-ordained destiny of greatness. Coats however, goes further in his writing and acknowledges the crucial role that exploitation played and has continued to play in shaping America and allowing for some people to exceed.