Black struggle, white violence

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington got me thinking about another summer anniversary that had race at its core: the 150th anniversary of the New York Draft Riots, which took place over three days in July of 1863. The MoW, the Draft Riots, and the rolling back of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court this summer are chapters of a much longer story of race and racism in the U.S., a story that is riven with white violence.

I’ve taught a course on violence in the United States a few times. Apart from the fact that it’s profoundly depressing, and as the weeks go by all of us in the room feel like we’ve been run over by a truck, it’s surprisingly revealing of how closely aligned physical violence in the United States has been to white racism, from “race riots” (a term that for most of US history meant white people running rampage through black neighbourhoods, like this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one) to lynching, to frontier violence, which included the forceful expulsion of Chinese from their homes.

The Draft Riots are a blueprint for much of the anti-black violence that floods US history. Essentially, it’s a story of how white working-class animosity towards urban elites gets translated into racist attacks on black working-class communities. In New York, which was a mostly anti-abolition town run by a powerful Democratic party machine, anti-slavery reformers were identified with the city’s ruling classes. The Draft Riots were sparked by exactly this class conflict. After Congress imposed a draft in 1863, they allowed for one way out: draftees could either find a substitute or “buy” one by paying the government $300 (about $5,000 in today’s money). This exemption was far beyond the reach of working-men in New York, given that a middle-class income averaged about $800 annually, and that inflation steadily rose throughout the war, topping out at 180% by 1865.

White working people in New York were hurting, especially since the war cut off trade with the South, with which the city had had a long and profitable trade relationship. New York was famous as a pro-Southern city (Lincoln had won less than 35% of the city’s vote), from the journalistic elite, who editorialized about the benefits of slavery, to the white working classes who saw free blacks as direct competition in a dwindling job market, competition that would work for lower wages. To add to the tension, bosses had used black workers as scabs in a Irish dockworkers’ strike earlier in 1863.

The riots erupted on the day the draft began: protestors attacked and burned the Provost Marshall’s office, where the lottery was taking place. Pretty quickly, though, they turned their attention to the small black community that lived in downtown New York. While they did focus on symbols of the elite — they looted Brooks Brothers, for example, and attacked the home of pro-abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley — black New Yorkers were their major target (Virtual New York City has an amazing day-by-day breakdown of the riots). On the first day of the riots, the Colored Orphan Asylum (pretty much what it sounds like) was burned to the ground, and over the next few days black and Native American people were lynched, and other black New Yorkers and those who tried to defend them, were beaten and robbed.

This kind of violence is notable mainly because it’s not that remarkable. White violence against black people is an inextricable part of the history of the United States, from the foundational violence of slavery through to the terrorism of race riots, lynching, and assassination. The March on Washington took place in spite of a massive uptick in white supremacist violence. Medgar Evers had been murdered only two months earlier. All that Spring, Birmingham, AL was identified with pictures of children set upon by firehoses and dogs. And these high-profile events don’t begin to represent the omnipresent threat of violent reprisals against any attempt by black people to achieve self-determination.

This is what’s been on my mind as I watched the commemorations of the March on Washington this past month. How can we tell the story of black (and interracial) activism for civil rights without acknowledging the brutal, deforming, psychically destructive, deadly violence that black Americans lived with every day for centuries, from Birmingham to New York, from Boston to Chicago? Somehow, the mainstreaming of the history of the civil rights movement has managed to focus on black bravery while erasing the ubiquity and consensus of white supremacy.

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