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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Throw Bubbie From The Train

As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time thinking about the history of immigration, I’m always interested in the current rhetoric around immigrants, and how it’s similar to or differs from what people used to say during the last big wave of immigration about a century ago. What irritates me the most is when the descendants of the Italian, Greek, Jewish, Polish etc etc etc immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th centuries hold up their bubbes and zaydies and nonnas and yayas as examples of good immigrants, whereas the abuelas and popos of today are the worst kind of bad immigrant.

You see this in the discussions about assimilation. I don’t want to argue for or against the virtues of assimilating into the mainstream culture here. And if you read my book, you’ll see that I think that “assimilation” isn’t always the best word for the process by which immigrants get absorbed into US culture; rather, the children of immigrants carve out new ways of being American, and the culture itself changes around new ethnic practices (think about how the rhythms of dancehall and reggaet├│n have been folded into hip-hop, for example). For argument’s sake, let’s just accept that assimilation is unidirectional, and a good thing.

In the minds of many conservatives, assimilation isn’t happening fast enough, or political correctness is getting in the way. Some arguments you’ll see are that bilingual education is limiting English language learning, or that immigrant enclaves allow people to live in their native languages. Senate Republicans think this is a serious enough issue that they want to introduce legislation to make immigrants learn English. And while the recent brouhaha over Jason Richwine’s eugenicist arguments about the cognitive deficits of Latinos shone a light on the nastier side of anti-immigration rhetoric, the fact that he was hired by the Heritage Foundation to co-author a major study on immigration shows that he’s not that much of an outlier on the right when it comes to immigration policy.

This is when I want to take James Inhofe and Laura Ingraham, and Marco Rubio (just to pick some names out of a hat) and shake them really hard. Or I could give them a copy of Antonio Mangano’s 1917 book Sons of Italy, an amazing work of insider sociology. Mangano noted how “helpless” Italian immigrant parents were in dealing with the larger world. Robert Woods and Albert Kennedy, in Young Working Girls (1913) called immigrant mothers “totally inept” in dealing with their new environment. Anglo reformers complained about the dominance of Yiddish and Italian signs, newspapers, and theatres on the Lower East Side; they thought that immigrant neighbourhoods were so filthy and dangerous that children would be better off pretty much anywhere else, which led to the notorious “Orphan Trains,” in which kids were shipped away from their immigrant families to farms in the West.

While I don’t think that even the loathsome Ann Coulter in her most provocative would suggest uprooting the children of Mexican immigrants and housing them with, say, with the next iteration of Gingriches, most of what anti-immigrant nativists were saying in 1913 is pretty close to what analogous anti-immigrant nativists are saying today. What kills me, though, is that today’s America First-ers are the descendants of those very immigrants who were considered unassimilable. And they’re parroting the same crap that would have forced their zaydies and bubbes and nonnas into a hostile world that had no use for them.

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