YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

January 20, 2018

“White supremacy”

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Roy Moore/NBC News photo



There is no better way to track social democrats (liberals) than the usage of the term “white supremacy.” No respectable Marxist or conservative would be caught dead using this description to characterize the West or the history of the US. (See the anticapitalist analysis here: https://jacobinmag.com/2018/01/racecraft-racism-barbara-karen-fields). And yet the phrase “white supremacy” has tremendous currency on the so-called Left, owing to its coalition with liberals during the New Deal. https://clarespark.com/2015/04/17/the-ongoing-appeal-of-the-leftist-dominated-popular-front-against-fascism/.

I have been ploughing through Eric Foner’s prize-winning book RECONSTRUCTION (1988) and noted his constant usage of the term “white supremacy,” which was repeated by earlier textbook-writing liberal historians influenced by the 1960s movements. This bears some unpacking, as it recalls the shift from class politics to an emphasis on black nationalism, particularly on the increasing acceptance of Malcolm X’s use of “white devils” on the liberal “Left.”

And yet Foner condemns the “Gilded Age” for its turning the freedmen (ex-slaves) into wage slaves. Similarly he ignores the New Left emphasis on Southern and Western Populism because it is so lily-white (not because it scapegoated banks and finance capital). Foner’s confusion surely is derived from Pop-Front politics that could not fuse liberal anticommunism with class-struggle politics.

But even more significant than the move toward explicitly racial politics, is this Foner’s deployment of “slavery” and the (failed) Reconstruction to the cause of present-mindedness, i.e., reading current values into the past, which violates the conscientious historian’s task of reconstructing the context of whatever period s/her writes about.

Conservatives rightly protest the term “white supremacy” because it assumes that all white people share the same interests. But we do better to see how the term distorts the popular understanding of US history, including the more recent move toward black nationalism/multiculturalism by “liberals.” https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/.












December 3, 2012

Index to blogs on Lincoln, Sumner, Reconstruction

Lincoln, March 1865

Lincoln, March 1865


https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/. (Sumner’s advanced views and links with Captain Ahab)



https://clarespark.com/2011/09/29/the-abraham-lincoln-conundrum/. (on attempts to link Lincoln with FDR and other moderates)


https://clarespark.com/2012/01/03/the-race-card/. (on negative views of Charles Sumner)



January 3, 2012

The Race Card

Sumner bio paperback cover art

This blog responds to the playing of “the race card” by such politicians as Eric Holder, Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson, plus a cast of thousands of militant black nationalists, along with academic allies who favor ethnic studies. Their separatism and taxonomy of “African-Americans” suggests not only an underlying loyalty to (racist) Pan-Africanism, but a fashionable version of US history as unmarked by moral and political outrage at the institution of slavery or horror at the failed struggle for Reconstruction after the supposed ending of the Civil War. At bottom, this blog suggests that the President’s continued popularity may be partly attributed to white liberal guilt (as suggested early on by Shelby Steele and others), and certainly not to powerful “liberal” blows against the racism that permeates our society, with some exceptions.

I will try to contrast two important books on race and class in the 19th century; one by the late David Montgomery, writing from the Left, and another by the late David Herbert Donald, writing from the moderate middle.  As I have shown in other blogs on the website, such success as the ex-slaves and their descendants have achieved in America is explained by the overt or subtextual racism of primitivism and  multiculturalism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/04/08/racism-modernity-modernism/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/.

I.    After having faulted upper-class antebellum and post-bellum Radical reformers (through 1868) for their obliviousness to structural class conflict, the late labor historian David Montgomery concluded that “the Radicals” (including Charles Sumner), nevertheless exerted a positive influence on American politics. In Beyond Equality, (1967) the book that established him as a leading historian, Montgomery ended with this paragraph:  “…though their moment in power was brief and their response to the dilemmas of that moment confused, the Radicals left America a legacy that was both rich and various. To Negroes they bequeathed the promise of equality, enshrined in the organic law of the land. To Liberals they imparted faith that an educated and propertied elite might shepherd the nation through the morass of democratic ignorance toward an increasingly prosperous, harmonious, and rational life. Upon the Sentimental Reformers, and through them, on the working classes, they bestowed the ideal of popular use of governmental machinery to promote the common good, and a conception of that good as something nobler than a larger gross national product. Henry Carey’s sense of revulsion toward the consecration of “selfishness and individualism as the prime feature of society,” and Thaddeus Stevens’s aspiration for a community ‘freed from every vestige of human oppression,’ jettisoned by a nation in frantic pursuit of wealth, were left in trust to its labor movement.”

(For David Montgomery’s views on his membership in the Communist Party see http://rhr.dukejournals.org/content/1980/23/37.full.pdf+html.)

II.   I have quoted from Montgomery’s first book, not because I sympathize with his Marxist analysis of the future of the labor movement, but because Montgomery’s positive view of the abolitionists and antislavery men (including Senator Charles Sumner, 1811-1874) stands in such sharp contrast with that of his Ivy League colleague David Herbert Donald, author of a much lauded two-volume biography of Sumner, that leaves out the labor question altogether, focusing rather on Sumner (a catalyst for Civil War) as a pain in the neck (perhaps with Jewish, Negro, or Indian blood), deserving of endless psychological analysis. But even more importantly, Donald sees the race problem as one of “prejudice,” without consideration of labor competition, in Ralph Bunche’s view, the lingering cause of white racism (see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/10/ralph-bunche-and-the-jewish-problem/) .

Here are some passages that illustrate my point:

David Herbert Donald

[From Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (1960), footnote: pp.4-5:] “…Barry [1853] asserted that Sumner’s mother was ‘probably of Jewish descent’; this allegation led…Stearns [1905]…to identify ‘the Hebrew element in Sumner’s nature; the inflexibility of purpose, the absolute self-devotion, and even the prophetic forecast.’ Such a theory of inherited racial traits is, of course, highly unscientific. But, in any case, the Jewish strain in Sumner’s ancestry is dubious. At no point in his career, when virtually every other possible weapon was used against him, were anti-Semitic charges raised.” In the text on p. 5, Donald reports that “Boston maiden aunts speculated—without any evidence whatever—that the mysterious [Esther Holmes, Sumner’s paternal grandmother, never married to Major Sumner] had been ‘partly of Negro or Indian blood.’” But then, Donald hints that there may be something to these speculations seeking to account for Sumner’s passion for Negro human rights: “Prudently the new senator preferred to draw the veil over the whole subject of his genealogy (referring to CS’s autobiography): “It seems to me better to leave it all unsaid.”

In Charles  Sumner and the Rights of Man (1970), Donald takes a slightly more positive view of his subject, but no sooner does he declare Sumner’s belief in the brotherhood of humanity, than he finds a quote that attributes distinct racial qualities to Negroes (though this typical 19th century view of national or racial character never affects Sumner’s view of such crucial matters as freeing the slaves immediately after the attack on Fort Sumter, or endowing the freedmen with some of the land that they had worked, plus a full panoply of civil rights, including desegregated quality education, male suffrage, the right to testify in trials, desegregated public space, etc.

[Donald, V.2, p. 422, referring to Sumner’s anti-segregation speech “The Question of Caste”:]  “Invoking the new prestige of evolutionary science, he declared that ethnology and anthropology proved the ‘overruling Unity’ among the races of man, ‘by which they are constituted one and the same cosmopolitan species, endowed with speech, reason, conscience, and the hope of immortality, knitting all together in a common Humanity.’… [The Switch:] When the bars of caste were lifted, the Negroes would exhibit their basic racial traits of ‘simplicity, amenity, good-nature, generousity, fidelity,’ and these, when added to the ‘more precocious and harder’ characteristics of white Americans, would result in a civilization where ‘men will not only know and do, but they will feel also.”….

Near the end of Vol. 2, Donald reveals his affinity with Gunnar Myrdal, the white liberal foundations who funded and controlled the production of An American Dilemma (1944), and other cultural historians who hoped that reduction of “prejudice” and interracial understanding (or the constant reiteration of “white guilt”) will alleviate every kind of racism, through a change of heart:

[Donald, p. 533, referring to Sumner’s proposed civil rights bill:] “The subordination of the Negroes was less a matter of economics than of prejudice, deep-seated and ineradicable so long as black men legally were marked as belonging to an inferior caste. Only by securing equal rights to all citizens could the United States live up to its promise and become a land where even-handed justice ruled.”

This rejection of economic considerations (e.g. labor competition) is precisely what Myrdal’s associate Ralph Bunche or his mentor Abram L. Harris, were repudiating in the late 1930s.

What to take away from this dip into the conflicted mind of the late David Herbert Donald, a Mississippian with a Vermont ancestor who fought for the Union? How did he climb the academic ladder to become one of the most honored historians in the field? Why should we pay attention to his Sumner obsession?

I have two primary reasons for writing this blog:

  1. Having reread the two-volume Donald  bio of Sumner, I am more convinced than ever that Melville modeled his character Captain Ahab after Sumner. Just as “Ahab” was a “fighting Quaker”,  Sumner’s first scandalous public oration– on the Fourth of July 1845, in Faneuil Hall, Boston, to an elite assemblage that included military brass sitting in the first row—denounced all wars and pledged his life to peace.  The “fighting Quaker” moniker, plus the compassion that Ahab feels for the black boy Pip, going so far as to take “crazy” Pip into his cabin and promising never to abandon him, clinches the deal for me. For Sumner’s writing completed as Melville was writing Moby-Dick see https://clarespark.com/2009/10/05/charles-sumner-moderate-conservative-on-lifelong-learning/. Or see https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.

2. The notion that a career such as Sumner’s, passionately averse to slavery, that then fights for reconstruction of an American post-Civil War Union, could be the sign of a mental disorder or even tainted blood, is so bizarre as to be a sign of mental  incompetence and perhaps outright hostility in Sumner’s biographer. It was noted in one obituary (the New York Times) that Volumes one and two of  Donald’s major work were different in tone, owing to the growing civil rights movement. Clearly, that writer did not read the new, improved model with sufficient care.  Donald never relinquishes his characterization of a foppish, somewhat gay, anti-social, supremely arrogant and Negro-fixated Charles Sumner. His complexion may have been olive-tinted in Volume 1, but he goes out in Vol. 2 with “So White a Soul” (referring to Emerson’s characterization of Sumner’s moral  purity, but with a suggestion of underlying racism).


March 30, 2011

Eric Foner’s Christianized Lincoln

Columbia U. Professor Eric Foner

Eric Foner’s recent history book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery ((N.Y.: Norton, 2010) has received the coveted Bancroft Prize. In this blog, I deploy a critical tool used by postmodernists, but with a different purpose. According to the “pomos,” all history writing necessarily falls into one literary genre or another, and the “master narratives” used in the writing of the history of the West are suspect (because the Pomos reject Progress and the [protofascist ]Enlightenment). Much as I deplore the cultural relativism and epistemological skepticism of the pomos, I found such an analytic approach useful in identifying trends in Melville criticism, especially biography. Early revivers of Melville’s reputation followed the Narcissus/Icarus myth. “Ahab”(i.e., Melville) over-reached in the writing of Moby-Dick, so crashed and drowned in the crazy book that followed—Pierre, or the Ambiguities. Drowned, he was done for and lost his reading public. But a competing myth or narrative followed that one (and it is deployed by Foner in his Lincoln study): the conversion narrative as exemplified in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  In this rendition, Melville, sobered up by the blood bath or quagmire of the American Civil War, recovers to write Clarel: a poem and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land–his very long “Christian” poem (the narrator is devout, but not the title character) and later his supposedly Christianity-infused “Billy Budd,” with Billy blessing the State that is killing him. Of course, all Melville scholarship is controversial, and Melville never followed the neat and consoling mythic narratives that are used to reconcile the deep ambivalence he felt about most issues that roiled the 19th century. Real lives, unlike myths, are messy.

Eric Foner’s new book follows the conversion narrative: Lincoln begins as a conventional white racist, but is pushed by events and the pressures of Radical Republicans away from his earlier desire for colonization of American blacks to Africa, and toward redemption. Like Foner’s massive book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877, Foner’s latest history makes Reconstruction utterly unfinished. But in this one he more overtly praises growing state power to remedy injustice, and pulls the reader along as Lincoln “grows” even in his religious references and belief in a God that intervenes in the affairs of humans. Foner’s narrative, dry and boring as most of it is, made me weep by the time I got to the end. Hence, the reader is left responsible to remedy the deficiencies of Andrew Johnson’s awful administration and everything that follows. Foner, a populist-progressive (as far as I can tell), mentions Karl Marx only once, to buttress the notion that the real American Revolution followed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Charles Sumner is lauded throughout because he, like the other Radical Republicans, pushes Lincoln in the correct direction. This is the most positive evaluation of Sumner that I have seen since the 19th century, when he was the object of adulation in New England among the abolitionists and thousands of blacks as well. However, in his earlier book on Reconstruction(1988), Foner misreported that Sumner opposed the 8 hour day for workers (p. 481), which was not true, for Sumner came around and voted for the eight-hour day as a result of his friendship with Ira Steward. Another source reported that Sumner thought that labor was overworked and needed the time for education and leisure. (See also a sarcastic reference to Sumner, p.504, footnoting David Herbert Donald’s mostly hostile biography of [the crypto-Jew] Sumner.) So I take this deviation from the usual anti-Sumner line to be opportunistic. (In the writings of others, especially the cultural historians, Sumner is an extremist, another monomaniacal, war-instigating Captain Ahab.) We the readers are supposed to follow the lead of the Radical Republicans into the Promised Land of racial equality, whatever that means. (For a related blog noting the triumph of communist-inflected black nationalism see https://clarespark.com/2012/12/01/petit-bourgeois-radicalism-and-obama/.)

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