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On the Consequences of Racist Lies and Illusions

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As the Institute marks its 16th anniversary on July 1, 2022, the most important democratic and governance challenge confronting our nation is the continued radicalization of the Republican Party and its reliance on lies to mobilize its supporters. The House of Representatives Bipartisan Select Committee’s public hearings investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection have made plain how many key officials in former President Donald Trump's inner circle informed him that there was no significant fraud in the November 2020 election and that he had lost that contest fairly. Nevertheless, months before that outcome, Trump had begun to lay the groundwork for his Big Lie that the election was stolen, telling supporters that if he did not win, the election could not be considered legitimate. The central issue in this calculated morass is not whether GOP officials and would-be officials have followed Trump’s sordid example and adopted and employed his cynical lies in their quest for power, but, instead, why citizens—Republican Party supporters—would so readily accept such assertions despite mountains of readily available contrary data. The answer, it appears, inheres in good measure in those individuals’ desire to ensure what they perceive to be their rightful status in society. Indeed, rather than seek to dissuade this group from turning to the casually cruel racism such a stance implies, Trump and the GOP have instead played to, and stoked, those beliefs in ever more overt ways.

        Many historians have drawn parallels between the current xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist turn in the Republican Party and arguments advanced in the secessionist era and later, amplified and revisited during Reconstruction and implanted as enduring elements in American political and social thought. I cite one of those analysts here to underscore the salience and import of such claims in today’s GOP. Thereafter, I illustrate how myths and lies concerning the supposed inherent superiority of white citizens have been repackaged by today’s Republicans to generate mobilizing, but callously misguided, “controversy” concerning an array of public matters, including, in the example I employ, the names assigned public schools.

        Writing in The Washington Post on June 15, Elizabeth Varon, the Langbourne Professor of History at the University of Virginia, argued that the House Select Committee’s methodical analysis of Trump’s coup attempt has spotlighted the reality,   

… that the Jan. 6 insurgency was, indeed, precedented, [and] rooted in long-standing efforts to preempt, delegitimize and suppress Black voting. … Aware that roughly 90 percent of Black voters supported Joe Biden in 2020, former president Donald Trump tried, through his ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, to invalidate and suppress votes in African American population centers; he maintained, in effect, that ‘Black people ha[d] no right to vote him out of office,’ as Eugene Robinson succinctly put it. More than 150 years ago, Southern secessionists laid the groundwork for such arguments by maintaining that Blacks had no right to vote Lincoln into office.[i]

        Perhaps the most influential of those secession-era white supremacists, Thomas R. R. Cobb, contended in a speech on November 12, 1860, shortly after Lincoln’s victory that his election,           

violated the ‘spirit of the Constitution.’ ‘This Union was formed by white men,’ he noted, ‘for the protection and happiness of their race.’ The Founders did give each state the power to declare who should vote, but they assumed that only citizens—Whites—would exercise that power.[ii]

        Not only did white secessionists preach Black inferiority, but those individuals also saw no need to present empirical evidence for their claims as they did so, a precedent that Trump has surely followed. Rather, it was enough to contend that there was “no difference between the submission to a negro ruler and one elected by negro suffrage.” [iii] Any such possibility was an outrage to their view of the natural order of things, in which white citizens should rule and should be able to deprive any selected others of their rights and freedom in the name of that standing.

        Then as now, there were individuals willing to argue that white control that kept African Americans particularly, but also other minorities, in a status of submission could be the only legitimate form of rule. I illustrate the metastasizing and enduring tendency of this sort of racist assertion of social standing and its hurtful character by visiting it in one contemporary manifestation: an ongoing dispute concerning the name of a secondary school in Virginia’s Shenandoah County.

        On June 10, 2022, The New York Times published an article describing the efforts of a determined group of white citizens to overturn the Shenandoah County school board’s 2020 decision in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement to change the name of that community’s high school from Stonewall Jackson, in honor of the Confederate Civil War general, to Mountain View.[iv] Those citizens outraged by the name change successfully elected three new members of the Board in 2021 who, during their campaigns, pledged to fight the alleged “cancel culture” and “era of political indoctrination” that had overtaken the Board in 2020 when it took its action.5 The three also contended that, if elected, they would demand that the Board revisit the issue and ensure that Jackson was appropriately honored once more by restoring his name to the school. Accordingly, the new members moved to rename Mountain View to Stonewall Jackson at a recent school board meeting. Their efforts failed on a tie vote following the often crude and contempt-filled comments of many citizens who contended that the Mountain View name failed to honor their community’s beliefs and values.

        Notably, Shenandoah has never had more than a tiny number of Black citizens and the County constructed and named its high school in 1959 during Virginia’s infamous “massive resistance” to desegregation of its educational system. Today, a group of the County’s white citizens, apparently persuaded by GOP claims that efforts to secure even symbolic equality for minority Americans “muzzles” white community members inappropriately, is working instead to honor an individual who committed treason against the United States and who fought to secure the preservation of the right of white Americans to hold Black Americans in bondage as a way of life. When presented in such clear terms, the matter these citizens have pressed and continue to push is far from democratic, as they assert. It is instead a modern manifestation of a tyrannical will among many of our country’s white citizens to place the nation’s African-American population, at least symbolically, in its supposed “rightful place.” The surpassing smallness and anti-democratic character of this group’s aspirations could hardly be more obvious. Nonetheless, to a person, members of this group in Shenandoah County are certain that it is their “rights” and social standing that are being abridged by even so small a claim for equality for their fellow African-American citizens as represented by the high school’s name change.

        Indeed, one commenter at the School Board meeting was featured in a photograph in the Times account sporting a tee shirt with Jackson astride his horse and the declaration that naming the school in his honor represents “pride, honor and tradition.”  Someone not in thrall to GOP lies aimed at white voters claiming that unnamed others are “canceling” their supposed rightful claims to racialized superiority might wonder how it is that a cadre of individuals in Shenandoah County is urging elected school leaders to enshrine symbolically a treasonous supporter of chattel slavery as a central public symbol of the jurisdiction and as an icon whom young people should esteem and emulate. One might also ask what is honorable about championing so degrading and cruel a position as the long ago scientifically debunked “natural” racial inequality argument. Finally, such an observer might legitimately question how espousing such a “tradition” does anything other than diminish and debase those who embrace it.

        Beyond these observations, one may draw at least three larger conclusions from this brief treatment of an ongoing saga of misguided hate. First, the anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian lie that sustained slavery and launched a civil war remains healthy in our polity and continues to animate white citizens to press demands they believe will ensure their social standing. A central lesson of Shenandoah County’s ongoing school name debacle is how small and constricted citizen views can become and how readily they may be open to lies that deny others equal rights. 

        A second lesson one may draw from this case is a reminder of human beings’ power to rationalize virtually anything, which is to say that the human capacity for degradation knows no bounds.6 I am struck by the casual cruelty embraced by those citizens calling for a return to the Jackson name for their community’s high school. Doing so, should such occur, will daily constitute an in-principle affront to all of those in the County and beyond who do not see the Confederacy’s claim that our nation exists for white people’s happiness and profit alone as a noble aspiration. Changing the name again to honor Jackson will also demonstrate once more a population’s unwillingness to treat all with respect and dignity regardless of their race, gender or any other characteristic. Indeed, far from democratic, such an outcome would show how a tyrannical group can rob others in its midst of the full measure of their equality and freedom, in this case, based on calculated and depraved lies. The irony implicit here constitutes a signal warning to all Americans interested in preserving freedom during a period when one of the nation’s primary political parties has become ever more interested only in securing power, and by whatever means and with whatever consequences for democratic self-governance.

        Finally, this case should remind those of us whose professional lives daily address governance concerns that as important as the often technical, administrative and processual institutional issues that daily occupy so much of our time and attention may be, they are only infrequently determinative of the freedom and equality experienced by the citizens we serve. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to be mindful, too, of the socio-cultural firmament that shapes those institutions, for it is there that the views, perceptions, values and behaviors are born and nurtured that either will impair or ensure the freedom and equality of our nation’s citizens. As we mark another anniversary, my hope is that those of us at the Institute will seek ever to be mindful of this critical reality.

Notes

1 Varon, Elizabeth R. The Secessionist Roots of the Jan. 6 Insurrection,” The Washington Post, June 15, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/06/15/secessionist-roots-jan-6-insurrection/, Accessed June 15, 2022.  

2 Varon, “The Secessionist Roots.”

3 Varon, “The Secessionist Roots.”

4 Robertson, Campbell, “Stonewall Jackson’s Name Fell Fast, and A Fury Quickly Followed, The New York Times, June 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/10/us/stonewall-jackson-shenandoah-county-virginia.html, Accessed June 10, 2022.   

5 Robertson, “Stonewall Jackson’s Name.”

6 Snyder, Timothy, “Foreword,” in Borowski Tadeusz, Here in our Auschwitz and Other Stories, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021, p. ix.                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Publication Date

July 1, 2022

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