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Watch Death and the Civil War on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Mitt Romney's claim in his "47 Percent" speech that black Americans are anti-citizens who will destroy the Republic is still needling me.

There are pundits whose work I respect who have found a way to explain away Romney's comment as somehow "normal partisanship." This transforms his ugly speech into something relatively "benign."

The argument goes as follows: Romney believes that the Democrats are destroying the country; any group that supports the Democrats are part of that "problem"; consequently, if blacks and Latinos remain loyal to the Democratic Party then the country will be imperiled.

I have tried to work through that logic. I cannot accept it given the broader context of Romney's campaign to "blacken" and "niggerize" Barack Obama. For Romney and the Right, Obama is "stained" because of his imagined proximity to the black community, and how African-Americans are supposedly lazy, irresponsible, disloyal, dependent, and parasites on White America.

The race-baiting of the Right works not only by making claims on Barack Obama as an individual: the racist stereotypes and white racial resentment channeled by populist conservatives are a function of how imagined group attributes are linked to a given person by virtue of their membership in that community.

Ultimately, there are many in the pundit classes who are beholden to the news cycle.The fact that Romney is a racist, one who uses white racial resentment as a cudgel, is no longer interesting to them. For others, especially journalists of color, I would imagine that "racism chasing" fatigue sets in at a certain point. Predictably, they become tired of pointing out the obvious.

Truth-telling becomes a hostage to practical concerns.

By comparison, I am hardheaded and indefatigable.

On Sunday, I was reminded of why any suggestion that places the loyalty and commitment of Black Americans as citizens in question is so deeply unsettling to me. PBS aired a great documentary exploring how the American Civil War impacted the country's understanding of death and loss. Republic of Suffering, the book upon with the documentary was based is an essential exploration of those themes. Death and the Civil War was a fitting companion to that excellent text.

Death and the Civil War features several segments detailing how the Civil War impacted Black Americans. Bondspeople had a different relationship to death because of the horrors of the Middle Passage and their condition as human property (we cannot forget that death could be also be a release, a type of ironic freedom from a condition of social death).

Death was also a companion for free blacks. They lived under a particularly unique shadow of death because their freedom was contingent and imperiled, as at any moment a white highwayman slave catcher could leap upon a free black American, invoking Dred Scott, and quite literally selling us down the river.

Black Americans were also iron men and iron women; those who served by the hundreds of thousands in the Union Army understood that "a bad death was death experienced under the crushing weight of slavery. A good death was death experienced by free men, battling to end evil, in the world." These men and women are elder gods. The children of the Black Freedom Struggle stand upon their shoulders.

Mitt Romney's suggestion that blacks are not real citizens, and that we are somehow less than full members of the polity, is problematic because it ignores how African Americans have purchased our citizenship in blood.

While other "immigrants" and "ethnics" have made this transaction on a one time basis (the Irish in the Civil War; the polyglot immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in World War One; Jews again in World War 2), African Americans have done this many times, only to have our national belonging remain questioned. In many ways black folks are the most "American" of Americans, having arrived here before most European immigrants, building the country without pay or compensation as human property, and helping to force the Constitution to live up to its abstract potential.

Here, I am reminded of a passage from Scott Hancock's "Tradition Informs Us" in the collection Slavery, Resistance, Freedom:

They selected a particular past, and the memory they constructed helped to identify themselves as African Americans--simultaneously distinct and similar with other Americans. Their past--their remembered past--informed them that they were Americans by right and by action. Their present told them there was something very wrong with America...But the collective memory black Northerners developed aided in reconciling the early stages of double consciousness by making protest an integral part of what it meant to be African American.  

As a part of black identity, black memory informed African Americans that they had a Revolutionary heritage to live out, and when they did, they were the "true Americans." Black collective memory placed responsibility upon African Americans to maintain their claim on the country by continuing to protest, and extend their rightful heritage into the future by living up to the inheritance they fought for...

Preserving the past and making it an active agent in the present helped from an African American identity. When free black leader employed the language of a military heritage (fighting for freedom) and connected it with labor (their ancestors helped build this country) they were building a common memory among African descended peoples in the United States.

Mitt Romney and the Tea Party GOP's shameless race-baiting and racial animus towards Barack Obama is a slap in the face of Black America, and a slur against our collective memory.

The Right's use of symbolic racism is effective politically because it leverages the fact that African Americans are the only group which had to be explicitly written into the Constitution as citizens to be protected, because our rights had been so egregiously violated by the United States and her citizens.

Mitt Romney's comment that black and Hispanic voters imperil the nation hurts (for lack of a better word) because it is a turning of the knife, and a reminder that for many in White America--especially those nativists and other Conservatives in the Tea Party GOP who are wedded to the idea of White Democracy--that black folks are just guests in our own country.

In the White Conservative Imagination, Obama is a perennial outsider, an alien in the White House, because people who look like him are not "real Americans" to begin with, so how can one of "those people" ever really be President? Mitt Romney's campaign strategy is predicated on reminding white conservatives and independents of that question.

Such a ploy may turn off some voters.

But, Romney has reasoned that he only needs to win over enough of those white independents and other fence sitters who hold tightly onto the mantra (consciously or otherwise) that "they are free, white, and twenty-one"...and what else can a person in America ask for?

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