Resistance Reading List: The Unsteady March- Part I

The Unsteady March by Philip A. Klinkner is about the progress of racial equality in the US. Their basic premise is that progress has only come when three factors have concurred (3):

  1. In the wake of a large scale war
  2. when the nature of America’s enemies has prompted American leaders to justify such wars and their attendant sacrifices
  3. when the nation has possessed domestic political protest movements willing and able to bring pressure upon national leaders to live up to those justifications.

Starting with slavery and moving through the post-Civil Rights era, this book is an exhaustive study of racial history in America and what the motivations have been for leaders to make good on the promises of democracy.

In the book they say that the two steps forward, one step back of race relations in America “helps explain the deep pessimism about race visible in the outlook even of more affluent blacks today and in much of America’s past” (5) and they’re not wrong.

Klinkner says in his introduction that “Throughout most of our history, white Americans have… received a psychological wage, [to use a term from W.E.B. Du Bois] from living in a society in which members of their racial group occupy the leading positions in most institutions. This favored status has meant that whites are commonly accepted as the normal and norm-setting and hence really the most prestigious members of American society” (7). That means, of course, that anyone not white has received the psychological detriment of living in a society where anything not white is abnormal.

The perfect example of this is President Obama. For anyone born before about 2005, all Presidents were white men. That was the normal. That was accepted. If you grew up as a white male in America you knew that the people who led the country looked like you. For there rest of us, that wall of 43 white men was a reminder that we were the “other”, less American, unable to lead. Now, there are a lot of little kids who until a month ago only knew a world in which the President was black. It’s a whole new world for them. My niece will never think that having a black president is weird. She will never think that a black woman can’t be the First Lady. She will not, at least in this one way, see herself as abnormal. Of course, there are so many other spaces in which she will, white men still lead most American institutions. But I always knew I could be an astronaut because Mae Jemison was. And I always knew that I could be anything I wanted, regardless of whether someone who looked like me had been that thing before, because I knew of so many black women who had broken ground. I knew I could do it too. But knowing you can break ground and knowing that you belong on that ground are two very different things. Psychological wage.

The book leads up to the passage of the 13th amendment by giving a thorough and harrowing history of slavery. Not so much the abuse and rape and heartbreak but more the complete and total white acceptance of the institution. One of the most surprising things to me was that blacks (and in most cases women) actually HAD the right to vote until the early 19th century, when states in both the south AND north decided to roll back these rights. Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and more all passed voting restrictions in the early 1800s to prevent blacks from gaining any political or economic power.

The other interesting fact was how white Americans used science, religion, and popular entertainment as a three-way attack on racial equality. Each justified and promoted racist doctrine in their own ways and the result was combined propaganda that convinced a majority of white americans to subscribe to the propriety of racial hierarchy. And it worked.

And then of course, the racializing of the judicial system. One example said it all for me. When Congress expanded the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, the law barred any “alleged fugitive” to testify and provided a commissioner with $10 in cases where he sided with a slaveowner, and only $5 when he ruled in favor of an alleged runaway. You can guess how that went. Every system was rigged to favor whites.

Enter: Abraham Lincoln.

If you have a black grandmother, you have probably heard a million times that Lincoln didn’t want to free the slaves, he just wanted to avoid war. Was that just my grandma? I didn’t think so. And to some extent it’s true. I personally believe that Lincoln would have liked to free the slaves, but knew that he needed a war to make it happen. Buuuttttt… I’m also a romantic American who really wants to love Abraham Lincoln more than he probably deserves.

However, the fact is that the 13th Amendment was only passed because of the the horrors of the war. In fact, in 1861, four years before the amendment was passed, Congress passed an amendment to PROTECT SLAVERY in the country, to make it illegal for the federal government to abolish or interfere with any state’s “domestic institutions, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said state”. Oh, and it was an unamendable amendment, which is a thing.

Four years later, war has started, states are scared shitless, the south is losing, and what do you know, the amendment passes. It had nothing to do with Americans caring one damn bit about the slaves, it was all about ending the war.

And that’s where we’ll end part 1.