The development and protection of American Prosperity was contingent upon Northern and Southern white men making compromises that allowed the continuance of slavery. These white compromises in 1787, 1820, 1850, and 1877 not only protected white supremacy, but also unity of the settler’s economy. The Federal government invaded the Southern states not to abolish slavery, but to preserve the union. After the War, during Reconstruction, Blacks started schools, farmed the land, and were elected to local, state, and national offices. This period of Black empowerment was cut short when Northern and Southern states compromised again to allow the establishment of the Jim Crow regime, the terrorism of lynching, and the re-establishment of the Ku Klux Klan. This compromise was disrupted with the 1960s civil rights movements, which has left us today without the unity necessary to create a climate of justice.
- White compromises
- 1820 Compromise
- 1850 Compromise
- Civil War
- Southern Redemption
- Jim Crow
If we want to provide a liable habitat for future generations, we have to understand the historical trends that now extend into our future and how to change them. We have to tell “telling” stories, in other words, that reveal the legacy of the troubles we face, and how to re-direct it—how to change the future of history. The troubles today lie in our disunity and alienation from each other and the Earth. Some people believe that we are still fighting the battles that caused the Civil War and I think they are right. Here’s what I think happened:
2 Causes of the Civil War
The slave states’ decision to separate from the United States to form their own nation brought about the Civil War because their decision violated a basic compromise between the slave and non-slave states that had held the Union together since the Revolutionary War. The compromises began with the famous Constitutional compromise of 1787 that allowed the slave states to count their enslaved people as 3/5 of a person for purposes of proportional representation in the House of Representatives. This compromise ensured that the Northern states would never have enough votes in Congress to abolish slavery.
The Northern states compromised their stance against slavery to protect the economic relations between the North and South. Northern prosperity was deeply intertwined with the prosperity of the South. The famous textile mills of Massachusetts, for example, not only received their cotton from the South but also sold their finished goods for the enslaved people on the plantations. The New York banks were deeply invested in the Southern cotton empire. Boston ships carried cargo from New Orleans to New York and then to Europe. Economically, the North and South were united (Roediger 2008, p. 49). The 1787 Compromise after the Revolutionary War protected the growing prosperity of the nation, as did the similar compromises of 1820 and 1850. When the Southern states decided to separate and become independent of the North, they violated all of these compromises.
After the Civil War, following a short period of reconstruction—which allowed people to envision a civic integrated America—politicians in Washington agreed to a new compromise: the compromise of 1877. This compromise allowed white Southerners to take over the South, to institute a Jim Crow regime and to terrorize Blacks. During the industrial revolution, the Great Depression, and two world wars, this compromise remained more or less intact for the 70 years from the 1880s to the 1950s. It held the white nation together, for the most part, until the civil rights movement.
Northern and Southern white politicians made these compromises as a way to insulate themselves from the moral outrage of enslaving millions of Africans, and, after the Civil War, as a way of maintaining white domination. They also decided how they would deal with themselves. The political scientist, Lena Zuckerwise, argues that the purpose of the four national compromises—the compromises of 1787, 1820, 1850, and 1877 was the protection and promotion of white supremacy (2016). While the compromises did protect white supremacy, they were not just about race. They were also about American prosperity. White supremacy did not depend on the union of the Northern and Southern states, but American prosperity did. Or, to put it another way, white supremacy was a significant pillar of American prosperity.
With the deconstruction of these compromises in the 1960s, we live today, as we have for over 50 years, without any substantial replacement that includes all of us. That’s where we are: we zig to elect a black cosmopolitan and then zag to elect a white supremacist. This chapter analyzes the meaning and the history of these various compromises that protected American prosperity so we may gain a better understanding of the possibilities for changing the direction of its tailwinds toward a viable future.
3 The National Compromises to Allow Slavery
When the 13 colonies formed a united government, one could see why the leaders in the slave colonies were somewhat apprehensive. Court trials in England and Scotland in the 1770s had freed enslaved people that British citizens had bought in Jamaica and brought to Britain. Some Quakers had taken a stand against enslaving people as had the Methodist leader John Wesley. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned over 200 enslaved people. GeorgeWashington, the first President, also owned hundreds of enslaved people. Still, forces were gathering for the abolition of slavery. To ensure that the federal government would not abolish slavery, political leaders in the Southern states believed that they must maintain a majority in the House of Representatives, which would be possible only if they could count each of their enslaved persons as 3/5 of a person in calculating their population for the House of Representatives. That stipulation became part of the Great Compromise of 1787.
The primary feature of the Great Compromise was that Congress would consist of two chambers: a Senate with equal representation from each state, and a House of Representatives where membership would be based on a state’s population. The first part of the compromise was easy to manage. The 3/5s provision was more complicated because of changing population and the addition of more states to the Union. As the federal government admitted new states to the Union, Southern politicians scrambled to ensure a proper balance between slave and free states.
The Missouri Compromise in 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. The nation outgrew this compromise as new territories applied to become part of the Union. Would these states allow slavery too? This was answered in the famous compromise of 1850.
The Compromise of 1850 had several features. It admitted California as a free state, it allowed new states and territories to decide whether to be free or slave, it outlawed the slave trade (but not slavery) in the District of Columbia, and it enacted a fugitive slave law. The fugitive slave law required even ordinary citizens to assist in capturing possible fugitives and if they were fugitives, to return them to the slave states. Instead of strengthening the position of the slave states, it supported the various movements toward abolishing slavery. Also, the 1850 Compromise was upset with the Kansas Nebraska ruling of 1854 that allowed the population of each state to decide whether to be slave or free The compromises that had held the nation together were falling apart.
Another force against the compromise was the abolitionist movement. There had always been groups against slavery in the Americas, such as the Quakers, but the first decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a vocal and sometimes militant movement against slavery. The best-known abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison, who began the publication of The Liberator in 1831. In 1837, the first national meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society was held in New York, and in the following year, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women was held in Philadelphia. Many of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement included the issue of slavery in their struggle for equal rights (Smith 1997, p. 230). Frederick Douglass’s voice also joined the chorus against slavery. He founded a black abolitionist paper, The North Star and he wrote an autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Douglass’ description of his experience as a slave had almost as much impact upon the abolition movement as Harriet Beecher Stowe’sUncle Tom’s Cabin (Garrison 1997, p. viii).
It is fair to say that the moral outrage of the abolitionist movement did not end slavery, nor did it prevent a war, but it did give support to create a new nation after the guns were silenced. W.E.B. Du Bois refers to the abolitionist movement after the war, at the time when Congress had to decide what to do with four million freed civilians, as the “moral moment’ when the abolitionists’ demand for justice made a difference (1935, p. 717).
A third assault on the compromise was the growing fear of a slave rebellion. Although there were many local slave rebellions throughout the south, the successful slave revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingo in 1804 haunted the nation. Taking the name of Haiti after defeating Napoleon’s army and declaring independence, the Haitian Revolution and its leader, Toussaint Louverture, inspired slaves from the 1811 revolt in New Orleans to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1851. In his book on Africa, W.E.B. Du Bois described the impact of the Haitian revolution:
The spectacular and astonishing triumph of revolution in Haiti threatened the whole slave system of the West Indies and even of continental America. It was this revolt more than any other single thing that spelled doom not only for the African slave trade but of slavery in America as a basis of its industrial system. The revolt encouraged the abolition movement in the United States and in Brazil; it flamed in practically every island of the West Indies (2015, p. 65).
The likelihood of a slave rebellion, of course, not only scared the slave owners, but also many northerners. In a sense, the compromise had come to mean that the slave states would keep the four million enslaved Blacks from invading white society and upsetting the economic apple cart. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go” (1824). When the Southern states seceded in 1861, they let the wolf go. They violated the white man’s compromise and the nation fell apart. The question was how to put it together again. One could interpret the next 20 years as three answers to that question: the war, reconstruction, and redemption.
4 The Civil War Becomes a Freedom War
In the introduction to a book on key documents about the confederacy, Loewen and Sebesta give four widely held reasons for the secession: slavery, states’ rights, tariffs and taxes, and the election of Lincoln (2010, p. 4). He believes that the immediate cause was the election of Lincoln, because Lincoln had spoken out against slavery. The main motive, however, was to protect the institution of slavery. A few Northern states had refused to enforce the Federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and instead of honoring the rights of these states to determine their own laws (a state’s rights policy), the Southern states argued that their Northern neighbors were violating the Constitution by not enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act.
It is also the case that the Southern states were an integral part of the “cotton empire” and Southern leaders may have believed that their future lay more with the global cotton trade than with the Northern states, so the tariffs and taxes played a contributing role. When the Civil War began, cotton exports constituted 61% of all U.S. exports (Beckert 2014, p. 37). The South’s prosperity, in other words, was dependent on enforced labor to provide raw cotton at competitive prices on the global market. Enslaved workers were seen as essential to their prosperity.
So why did the Federal government not allow the Southern states to form a new nation? There are multiple reasons here as well. At the beginning, the answer actually has more to do with the compromise than with slavery. The reason for making the compromise, after all, was that American prosperity depended on enslaved labor. The slave states produced the tobacco and then the cotton that were major American exports. Northern banks and businesses from ship owners to cotton mills depended on Southern plantations. Perhaps it would have been possible to separate the states, but not the nation’s economy. Although President Abraham Lincoln was against slavery, at the beginning, he was apparently more interested in saving the union than in freeing the slaves. In 1862, he said:
If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at this same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount objective in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I can save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it; and if I can save it by freeing all the slaves, I would also do that. What I do about slavery in the colored race, I do because I believe it would help save the union …. (quoted in De Bois 1935, p. 85).
This position makes sense when we remember that the key mythology of the nation was based on progress and prosperity, and in the 1860s, the south was an integral part of the idea of the American promise. For Lincoln, at least in 1862, the reason for the war was to put the nation back together again.
As the war expanded, Lincoln’s view of the enslaved population changed. They became a significant participant in the war itself. Would the confederacy use them to fight against the North, or could the North use them to fight against the South? Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 answered the question. The four million Blacks in the confederate states were free.
The conflict over slavery that had been avoided by various compromises now divided and defined the nation as a nation at war. At first, it was a war between white men wearing blue and gray uniforms. After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Blacks played a major role in defeating the Confederate armies. W.E.B. Du Bois writes that as soldiers and laborers, between 300,00 and 400,000 Blacks helped in winning the war (1935, p. 112). Enslaved Blacks were not so much fighting in a war between the states as fighting for their freedom. The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation changed their status from the property of owners to what I would call today “civilians:” people who were vulnerable, need protection, and rely on the rule of law.
As you can imagine, most newly freed civilians were without any means of providing for themselves or others. As the Northern armies moved south, planters abandoned their plantations leaving black laborers without work. In some cases, however, black civilians occupied the land and began farming for themselves and others. One such case was the Sea Islands along the coast of South Carolina. In 1865, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, designating the Sea Islands as land for Blacks. He needed to rid his troops of the multitude of freed people following his campaign through Georgia. Also, since all the planters had left their plantations, the land was easy to give to the freed people. In any case, the War Department supervised distributing the land to black families. Each family was allowed 40 acres and they could use mules on loan from the army. This is the source of the famous phrase “40 acres and a mule.” In a few months, 40,000 black civilians had settled on 400,000 acres (Foner 2002). All this before the war had officially ended.
When General Lee surrendered in1865, over 600,000 people had been killed, the Southern economy was shattered, and the political identity of the seceding states was in limbo. It seemed like the end of white compromises. The year of Lee’s surrender witnessed the passage of the 13th Amendment, the founding of the Freedman’s Bureau, and the writing of “black codes.” These conflicting arrangements shaped the first period of Reconstruction.
5 The First Period of Reconstruction
Reconstruction, as you might imagine, follows deconstruction. The compromise had been deconstructed. The question was what would be reconstructed. As always, there are different stories to tell. Whatever story of reconstruction one tells, however, it is hard to exaggerate the significance of the loss of Abraham Lincoln, not only because he appeared to have the potential to bring all Americans together, but also because his replacement, Andrew Johnson, never intended to. Johnson appears to have lacked the ability to see Blacks and Whites as equal. The loss of Lincoln was probably as great for the nineteenth century as the loss of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy was for the twentieth. In any case, the Executive branch’s abandonment of the struggle for Black equality left the heavy lifting of uniting the whole population to Congress.
The first new institution for facilitating this change was the Freedman’s Bureau. Legislation for the Bureau was passed in March 1865. Its general purpose was to assist freed civilians in moving from the conditions of slavery to the conditions of freedom. As Eric Foner points out, the full name of the Bureau—Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land—gave the Bureau a more specific purpose to “divide abandoned and confiscated land into forty-acre plots, for rental to freedmen and loyal refugees and eventual sale with ‘such title as the Unite States can convey’ (language that reflected the legal ambiguity surrounding the government’s hold upon Southern land)” (2002, p. 69). This “ambiguity” eventually allowed the plantation owners to take back their land, but it did not destroy the connection between freedom and land in the mind of Southern civilians.
Johnson not only allowed the plantation owners to retake their land, but also permitted the Southern states to develop “black codes.” The codes criminalized everything from black unemployment to an “insulting” gesture toward whites. Once arrested, Blacks were imprisoned, and then leased to corporations to pay off their fines. In many Southern states, any man not fully employed could be arrested and fined for vagrancy. To pay off their fines, many Blacks had to sign work contracts with their “bosses,” that had been their former masters. (Blackmon 2008, 71). Du Bois described the impact of the black codes as follows:
The Negro’s access to the land was hindered and limited; his right to work was curtailed; his right to self-defense was taken away, when his right to bear arms was stopped; and his employment was virtually reduced to contract labor with penal servitude as a punishment for leaving his job. And in all cases, the judges of the Negro’s guilt or innocence, rights and obligations were men who believe firmly, for the most part, that he had “no rights which a white men was bound to respect” (1935, p. 167).
The prevalence of the black codes in the Southern States, as well as Johnson’s pardon of planters, made the Republicans (at that time the Northern liberal political party) in Congress wonder if lives lost in the Civil War had been wasted. Furthermore, it actually looked like the Southern states would gain power in the Federal government because now their number of representatives in the House would increase since each freed person counted as a full person rather than only 3/5s. On top of that, 1866 witnessed the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, which represented a more organized form of white terrorism against black advancement. The Republican controlled congress decided to act. Their actions created the second period of reconstruction.
6 The Second Period of Reconstruction
Over President Johnson’s veto, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867 with the following provisions:
Creation of five military districts in the seceded states, with the exception of Tennessee.
Each district was to be headed by a military official empowered to appoint and remove state officials.
Voters were to be registered; all freedmen were to be included as well as those white men who took an extended loyalty oath.
State constitutional conventions, comprising elected delegates, were to draft new governing documents providing for black male suffrage.
States were required to ratify the 14th Amendment prior to readmission (US History).
In passing The Reconstruction Act of 1867, congress recognized that it was not enough to abolish slavery; they also had an obligation to protect black civilians, so Federal troops were stationed in the Southern states. Federal protection allowed Blacks to realize their rights as citizens, as stated in the 14th Amendment, which stated that all citizens had the right to equal legal protection, and that these rights cannot be denied without due process.
To meet the Federal requirements for readmission to the Union, the Southern states actually recognized the Black’s right to vote before many Northern states. This was finally corrected with the 15th Amendment (passed by Congress in February 1869 and ratified by three quarters of the states in March 1890), which guaranteed that the right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Library of Congress).
The Reconstruction Act brought about a different America than whites had ever envisioned. black citizens began to exercise their political freedom, admittedly under the protection of Federal troops, but still a clear break from the past. For the first time, hundreds of Southern blacks participated in local, state, and national politics. Each of the Southern states has its own history, but taken together, well over 600 Blacks served as legislators, which represented a stunning change in American politics. Between 1869 and 1876, sixteen Blacks were elected to Congress. Eric Foner gives the following description of this brief period of openness:
Blacks and whites sat together on juries, school boards and city councils, and the Republican Party provided a rare meeting ground for like-minded men of both races. Thus, if reconstruction did not create an integrated society, it did establish a standard of equal citizenship and recognition of blacks’ right to a share of state services that differed sharply from the heritage of slavery and presidential Reconstruction and from the state-imposed segregation that lay in the future (p. 372).
Perhaps as empowering, and certainly more enduring, was the Black’s advancement in education and the creation of various civic and community organizations, from the Urban League to the black churches. Much of this civic activity was supported and facilitated by Northern blacks and whites—so called carpetbaggers—whose presence in the South was seen quite differently by whites and blacks. In terms of promoting the education of poor Blacks and Whites, however, these Northerners’ contributions should not be overlooked. Du Bois credits the abolitionists and especially the teachers for bringing public education to the South. He also argues that in the long run the building of educational institutions had the most lasting impact on the future of black communities.
Had it not been for the Negro school and college, the Negro would, to all intents and purposes, have been driven back to slavery… . But already, through establishing public schools and private colleges, and by organizing the Negro church, the Negro had acquired enough leadership and knowledge to thwart the worst designs of the new slave drivers (1935, p. 667).
Still, the achievements of Reconstruction were multiple. Foner offers the following summary:
Biracial democratic government, a thing unknown in American history, was functioning effectively in many parts of the South. Men only recently released from bondage cast ballots and sat on juries, and in the Deep South, enjoyed an increasing share of authority at the state level, while the conservative oligarchy that had dominated Southern government from colonial times to 1867 found itself largely excluded from power. Public facilities had been rebuilt and expanded, school systems established, and tax codes modernized. Occurring at a critical juncture in the transition from slavery to freedom, Reconstruction had nipped in the bud the attempt to substitute a legalized system of labor discipline for the coercion of slavery, and enhanced Blacks’ bargaining power on the plantations. All in all, declared a white South Carolina lawyer in 1871, “we have gone through one of the most remarkable changes in our relations to each other, that has been known, perhaps, in the history of the world (p. 410).
These achievements, however, were largely negated with the re-establishment of a compromise among white men. After the national election in 1876, Northern and Southern white politicians, agreed to another white compromise.
With the abolition of slavery, and the Southern states’ return to the Union, Congressional support for Reconstruction began to wane. The presidential election of 1876 provided an occasion for white politicians to make another compromise. In the popular vote, Samuel J. Tilden outpolled Rutherford B. Hayes, but the Electoral College votes were decisive. Tilden had 184 electoral votes to Hayes’ 165, but since 20 Electoral College votes were contested, neither candidate had a clear victory. The politicians struck a compromise. Rutherford B. Hayes would become president and federal troops would be withdrawn from the South. Northerners had less interest in protecting the political rights of black citizens in the South and Southern Democrats had already gained control of many State governments, so the compromise was not that difficult. The era of Reconstruction was replaced by the era of “Redemption.”
7 The Era of “Redemption”
Once the federal troops left the south, white southerners regained control of state and local governments, passed legislation that segregated Blacks from Whites, rewrote labor and shareholder contracts, and began lynching Blacks who resisted their reign. They called themselves the redeemers, because they saw themselves redeeming the south from Blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags (white southerners who were allies of Blacks). The redeemers included a number of quite different groups from state representatives to the KKK, but as Eric Foner points out, they held some things in common:
They shared, however, a commitment to dismantling the reconstruction state, reducing the political power of Blacks, and reshaping the South’s legal system in the interest of labor control and racial subordination (2002, p. 588).
Their project of erasing the achievements of black civilians was greatly enhanced by the terrorism of the KKK and other white supremacist groups. Neither the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which forbade governments from denying citizens the right to vote, nor the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed African Americans equal access to public accommodations, could counter the violence of the KKK. (The Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights bill unconstitutional in 1883.) By the end of the 1880s, all the Southern states had been “redeemed,” which meant not only that Whites controlled state governments, but also Black lives.
The episodes of “reconstruction and redemption” following the Civil War were given various interpretations that David W. Blight has laid out for us in his book, Race and Reunion (2001). As you might imagine, those who were enslaved interpreted the war much differently from those who lost their enslaved labor and lost the war. Many white Southerners adopted a memory of the war as a "lost cause." The phrase was a title of a book written by Edward Pollard in 1867 that journalists and preachers made into a set of beliefs (p. 51). The “story” of the lost cause presented the Confederacy as more virtuous, principled, and religious than the North, fighting for ideas and family. The South suffered for being right, while the North won the war due to their superior numbers and technology. Confederate soldiers who had fought and lost, in other words, were morally superior to their Northern invaders. Furthermore, their generals, such as Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, had greater virtue and integrity than the likes of Northern generals such as Ulysses S Grant. In this story most “Negro slaves” were loyal and obedient.
Charles Reagan Wilson points out in his book on the” lost cause” that it was a peculiar mixture of evangelical religion and Southern patriotism. The links between the Christian religion and the destiny of the lost cause are difficult to miss in Wilson’s quote from a lost cause advocate:
Without the welding together of our people by the fiery trials of war, of reconstruction, of threatened servile domination, we could not have been the conserving power we have been. If this government is still to stand for liberty and freedom, it will be the south that will preserve it, and in the good providence of our God, bringing good out of evil, our suffering will help us bring a blessing to all people (2009, p. 77).
Missing from this passage is any mention of enslaved people. This omission became part and parcel of the white compromise that held sway not only in the South, but throughout the nation. Look at President Woodrow Wilson’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg.
How wholesome and healing the peace has been! We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes (Wilson 1913).
Not a word here about African Americans. Even though the Civil War began to save the Union, its greatest moral accomplishment was the short period of reconstruction when the nation protected the rights of black civilians. This possibility was not realized then and is still not realized today. In his classic work, The Souls of Black Folk,W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about what could have happened if reconstruction had continued:
Had political exigencies been less pressing, the opposition to government guardianship of Negroes less bitter, and the attachment to the slave system less strong, the social seer can well imagine a far better policy—a permanent Freedman’s Bureau, with a national system of Negro schools; a carefully supervised employment and labor office; a system of impartial protection before the regular courts; and such institutions for social betterment as savings-banks, land and building associations, and social settlements. All this vast expenditure of money and brains might have formed a great school of prospective citizenship, and solved in a way we have not yet solved the most perplexing and persistent of the Negro problems (1996, pp. 33–34).
What did happen was the establishment of a segregated Jim Crow South enforced by the terrorism of the KKK and lynchings, and a segregated North through housing red lining and job discrimination. These institutions and practices continued into the 1950s. They allowed white people to think of their national history as though their prosperity was of their own making, or in other words, as though people of color did not exist. The various movements for people’s rights in the 1960s as well as the United States’ failure in the Vietnam War in the 1970s, cracked open this white bubble.
8 Unraveling the White Compromise
The nation’s white compromised life did change very slowly after the Second World War. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that schools must be desegregated in the Brown versus Board of Education decision. 1955 witnessed the Montgomery bus boycott. In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement mushroomed into an agent of change. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it looked like blacks might gain the same rights as whites. The 60s and early 70s were filled not only with a civil rights movement, but also the feminist movement, the Chicano movement, the Native American movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement, and the anti-war movement. All these movements not only gave voice to people’s dignity and rights, but also attacked the white male power structure. There was a high price to pay: the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Still, many hoped that we could change course, especially after the failure of the invasion of Vietnam. I remember listening to GeorgeMcGovern’s speech calling America to come home:
From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America
From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.
From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick—come home, America.
Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.
Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land—from California to New York island, from the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters—this land was made for you and me.” (McGovern 1972).
As a nation, we did not come home. We drifted instead. Conservative nationalists shamed anti-war progressives for not honoring the veterans of Vietnam, and used military sacrifice, rather than civilian rule, as the symbol of our national identity. The government’s “war on drugs” plus the three strikes policy resulted in the incarceration of thousands of black men. Today, more black men are in prison than were enslaved in 1850 (Alexander 2012). The multiple video recording of police shooting Blacks has brought to every one’s attention that racism has not lost its sting. We still live in a world where people need to say, “Black Lives Matter.”
On the other hand, Affirmative Action policies opened opportunities for many to make significant contributions to different organizations and institutions. The election of Barak Obama appeared to demonstrate that we had moved beyond the era of segregation. A black family lived in a white house that was built by black enslaved civilians.
His election, however, also brought to the surface a level of white hatred of Blacks that had been largely under-cover. In a sense, since the failure of McGovern’s Presidential campaign, leading white politicians have pretended that our historical unity was not based on white compromises that ignored the violations of our shared humanity. These violations have become so obvious during Trump’s Presidency that it seems impossible to hide them again.
We exist now in a curious place with so much revealed but very little healed. It’s not just white supremacy that blocks our moving forward, but also the very thing the compromises tried to save: Americn Prosperity. Its tailwinds continue to move us in an unsustainable direction. Acknowledging the trajectory of these tailwinds during our national history might give us some understanding of what will probably happen to us, unless we begin to work on the difficult task of moving from a climate of injustice to a climate of justice.
9 The Tailwinds of American Prosperity
One way to understand the history of our Republic is to examine how its continual support for American Prosperity has changed our relationship to the Earth, our humanity, social relationships, and the civic—from our origin in the Atlantic commerce of Europe, Africa, and Americ to the present. In the beginning, we find the following perceptions:
The Earth is seen as a commodity
Our humanity is seen as a racialized hierarchy
Our social relations are incoherent
The civic is seen as militarized.
Treating land as a commodity has probably changed the least in our history. One would have thought that the US could have learned something from the many Indigenous communities they removed from their places. What if our government had listened to the Native American’s view of the Earth as a sacred place? Instead of learning from others, the US sought to teach Native Americans how to treat land as a commodity. In 1887, Congress passed the “General Allotment Act,’ which divided up Indian lands into parcels of 160 acres and allotted a parcel for each family, so they could use the land as the colonial settlers had (Dunbar-Ortiz 2014, p. 157). The land left over after each family had received its allotment, which were most of the Indian lands, was sold to white settlers. The program was a failure because Indian culture did not see land as a thing without meaning. The program was later dropped, leaving the Indians with less land, and whites as limited as before about the meaning of land. There were exceptions, of course, such as the forester, Alpo Leopold, who wrote in his Sand County Almanac that we should recognize the land as a biotic community (1949, p. 2). When one considers that our treatment of “land” determines how we live together on the Earth, it follows that if we cannot change our way of inhabiting the Earth, all the other changes we make will more than likely be for naught.
The second aspect of American prosperity—racialized humanity--has continued to infect American politics and culture. White supremacy is so intertwined with the other aspects of American prosperity that one must change the whole thing to really change any part of it.
This third aspect of American prosperity—incoherent social relationships—has made some changes. The 2020 movement to “defund the police” and related demands have brought about a greater awareness of wrongs that have been ignored before. This learning, however, has been somewhat isolated from the issues of protecting our earthly habitat and what transformations are necessary to limit financial capitalism and economic growth. Without the development of limits, American Prosperity will continue to frustrate our efforts for a sustainable future.
The fourth element of American prosperity—a militarized civic—has been criticized in terms of the militarization of city police department, but the climate of war appears as strong as ever in our relations with others. As Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates in her book on an indigenous people’s history of the United States, our strategies of war has not really changed since the Indian wars (2014, p. 57). We have “tomahawk” missiles,” and “Apache” helicopters. The Navy SEAL team’s code name for Osama bin Laden was “Geronimo.” We have new technology, of course, and yet the climate of war has not changed since our beginning.
Looking at the present from this Chapter’s story leaves us in a curious situation. Trump’s supporters dreamed of a return to a white America. Their dream, however, assumed that the old white compromises could be re-established. That will not happen. Still, it’s not given that we can create a climate that would expect all of us to repair the social relationships caused by the violations of our shared humanity—a necessary part of creating a climate of justice. We need to remember that prosperity is not the ultimate problem, the ultimate problem is the violations of humanity that have not been repaired. The problem is that we still exit in a climate of injustice rather than justice.
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Brown, M.T. (2022). White Compromises and American Prosperity. In: A Climate of Justice: An Ethical Foundation for Environmentalism. Library of Public Policy and Public Administration, vol 16. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77363-2_6
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