This Is Not a Moment for Capitulation

While all eyes were trained on the impeachment hearing Wednesday, Hillary Clinton tweeted links to three articles that tell a story that might be even more important than whether or not Trump bribed Ukraine to get dirt on a political opponent.

It comes as no surprise to most of us that Stephen Miller is a white supremacist—that is precisely why Trump hired him and put him in charge of this country’s immigration policy. As a result, hate crimes are up and almost 70,000 migrant children were held in custody last year.

The conflation of those events reminded me of a piece that Henry Louis Gates wrote recently about how the Redeemer movement arose to wipe out the political power that African Americans garnered during the Reconstruction era. Here is what posed a threat to white southerners.

During Reconstruction, South Carolinians made black officeholders a majority in the lower house of the state’s General Assembly and celebrated the service of black lieutenant governors, a secretary of state, a treasurer, a state Supreme Court justice and a speaker of the House. Overall, more than 2,000 black officeholders would be elected during Reconstruction throughout the South, including, by 1901, a total of 20 black congressmen and two United States senators, both from Mississippi.

The Redeemer movement was a campaign of terror unleashed on that kind of black power. It set the stage for sixty years of Jim Crow.

The first step in the Redeemers’ plan was to win back Southern statehouses by any means necessary. “Nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it could answer the purpose of redeeming the state from Negro and carpetbag rule,” said the notoriously racist South Carolina governor and United States senator Ben Tillman in 1909, pondering the causes of a massacre of black people more than a quarter-century before, in 1876, in Hamburg, S.C. The outcome of that massacre: The Democrats took back the state in that year’s elections through intimidation, and one of their first actions was to close the integrated state university and reopen it for white students only.

That same fear of black and brown power sent Trump to the White House in 2016 and unleashed Stephen Miller to wreck havoc on refugees and immigrants. It is in that context that we are hearing calls for civility, with a lot of handwringing about the polarization between the two parties. Adam Silver is one of many pundits suggesting that what this moment calls for is a Democratic Party that downplays the so-called “cultural issues.”

In response to that kind of advice, Adam Serwer also drew some parallels with what happened during Reconstruction. Keep in mind that, at that time, it was the Republican Party that had initially claimed the mantle of civil rights.

Writing in 1902, the political scientist and white supremacist John W. Burgess observed, “The white men of the South need now have no further fear that the Republican party, or Republican Administrations, will ever again give themselves over to the vain imagination of the political equality of man.”

The capitulation of Republicans restored civility between the major parties, but the political truce masked a horrendous spike in violence against freedmen. “While the parties clearly move back from confrontation with each other, you have the unleashing of massive white-supremacist violence in the South against African Americans and a systematic campaign to disenfranchise, a systematic campaign of racial terror in the South,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me. “This is an era when white supremacy becomes virtually a national ideology.”

This was the fruit of prizing reconciliation over justice, order over equality, civility over truth.

Serwer goes on to describe an era that was characterized by civility in politics.

Some of the worst violence in American history occurred during the period of low partisan polarization stretching from the late Progressive era to the late 1970s…In Ivy League debate rooms and the Senate cloakroom, white men could discuss the most divisive issues of the day with all the politeness befitting what was for them a low-stakes conflict. Outside, the people whose rights were actually at stake were fighting and dying to have those rights recognized.

That is why Serwer rejects the kind of civility that is actually an attempt to say, “I can do what I want and you can shut up.” He concludes with this.

The true threat to America is not an excess of vitriol, but that elites will come together in a consensus that cripples democracy and acquiesces to the dictatorship of a shrinking number of Americans who treat this nation as their exclusive birthright because of their race and religion. This is the false peace of dominance, not the true peace of justice. Until Americans’ current dispute over the nature of our republic is settled in favor of the latter, the dispute must continue.

Last week I surprised myself a bit by writing a piece titled, “In Defense of Polarization.” That goes against the grain for someone who has always been more comfortable in the role of peacemaker than agitator. But it has become increasingly clear to me that this is not a moment for capitulation. Both Gates and Serwer provided the historical context for what is at stake in America today. The articles Clinton tweeted added the exclamation mark.

To prioritize reconciliation over justice at this moment might once again be appealing to white men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain. But our history tells us that, as Fredrick Douglas once wrote: “When the moral sense of a nation begins to decline and the wheel of progress to roll backward, there is no telling how low the one will fall or where the other may stop.”

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.