Last Sunday evening, I was treated to a black conservative creature feature.
First, there was Stanford professor Dr. Shelby Steele's appearence with The Atlantic magazine national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates on This Week, reported here at Daily Kos by Egberto Willis.
The most shocking statement from Shelby Steele occurred when George Stephanopoulos asked if government action is not the answer to solve the structural wealth disparity between blacks and whites than what is. "You don't close it," said Shelby Steele. "You don't do anything. You leave it alone. You practice as best as possible a discipline of freedom where your struggle is not for some sort of advantage. But your struggle is for freedom itself. That's what you do."
Pretty much at the same time, I was reading Juan Williams' pig-sh*t shoveling paean
to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas published in the Wall Street Journal
, which I diaried about in the Tuesday's Chile edition of Black Kos
. I noted a quote by Black abolitionist/woman's suffragist Frederick Douglass:
In his dissent in Grutter v. Bollinger, a case that preserved the affirmative-action policies of the University of Michigan Law School, he quoted an 1865 speech by Frederick Douglass : “‘What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.’ . . . Like Douglass, I believe blacks can achieve in every avenue of American life without the meddling of university administrators.”
I doubt that Mr. Douglass was referring, specifically, to "the meddling of university administrators" in an 1865 speech; Mr. Douglass probably had more pressing matters that needed his attention. Nevertheless, I looked up the Douglass speech, What The Black Man Wants
, and found a sentiment (talking point?) articulated by Dr. Steele on This Week
(and explicitly quoted in Clarence Thomas's Grutter v. Bollinger
Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall.
The specific historical context of Frederick Douglass 1865 (impromptu!) speech before the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, What The Black Man Wants
is, in part, the subject of this diary. The other subject of this diary is the use and abuse of the legacy of Frederick Douglass' by modern conservatives.
The New York Times Opinionator Blog has had a fascinatiing series of posts on the American Civil War called Disunion, including two posts that pretty much go to the heart of the issues here.
Major General Nathaniel P. Banks
By early 1865, reconstruction efforts were already well underway in Louisiana, under the leadership of General Nathaniel P. Banks
, former Speaker of the House and Governor of Massachusetts. Rick Beard's post, Louisiana's Stillborn Constitution
elucidates two of the issues permeating in the air:
...On Jan. 29, 1863, he instituted a work program for enslaved blacks...
The program required that blacks sign annual contracts calling for 10-hour work days in return for a monthly wage of $3 or 5 percent of the yearly proceeds from the crop’s sale as well as food, shelter and medical care. The regulations protected the newly contracted laborers from physical punishment, but prevented them from leaving the plantations where they worked without the owners’ permission. Provost marshals monitored the program, capturing runaway laborers and subjecting “vagrant” blacks to involuntary public work.
At its peak, Banks’ system employed 50,000 workers on 1,500 estates....
The other issue surrounding Banks (and ultimately, President Lincoln's) reconstruction efforts in Louisiana was the subject of black suffrage.
By 1863 the issues of emancipation and freedmen’s rights, especially the franchise, were uppermost in the minds of Louisiana’s political leaders. Led by former Representative Michael Hahn, Moderates enthusiastically embraced emancipation while opposing immediate civil or political rights for the freedmen. Thomas Durant and Benjamin Flanders controlled the Radical faction, which wanted to abolish slavery and give black males the right to vote. Durant and Flanders were both longtime New Orleanians, but most of the prominent Radicals were newcomers – Treasury officials (many beholden to Secretary Salmon P. Chase for their appointments) and Northern military officers. The third group, the Conservative Unionists — planters and businessmen who wanted to retain slavery — made up the least powerful political faction....
Presidnet Lincoln's plan, which he touted even in his final public address
, three days prior to his assassination, was harshly criticized by Radical Republicans in Congress and among abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass.
As reported by Erik J. Chaput in his The Reconstruction Wars Begin, the abolitionist community was divided into two factions:
Wendell Phillips, abolitionist
At the Melodeon, [Wendell] Phillips, a Mayflower descendant and Harvard graduate, called for an expansive definition of freedom to take hold as the Union Army made its way to the Confederate capital at Richmond, Va. This included not just emancipation, but also economic independence, equality before the law and the right of suffrage, which was the only way, according to Phillips, to measure the “success or failure” of the Union war effort. Phillips wanted to conquer what his abolitionist friend Sallie Holley once labeled the “atrocious hatred of color.” Phillips was as passionate about suffrage reform as he was about abolition, and he pressured the White House to do more. Let “no negro’s hand drop the bayonet till you have armed it with the ballot,” read a line in a telegram written by Phillips and Frederick Douglass to President Lincoln just a few weeks before.
Not everyone agreed with Phillips’s strategy, though – most notably his friend the publisher William Lloyd Garrison. Although Garrison did not necessarily disagree with Phillips’s long-term commitment to enfranchising millions of former slaves, he did not want to see Phillips put the cart of political reform before the all-important task of ratifying a constitutional amendment ending slavery... he was focused exclusively on one issue: the complete eradication of slavery, everywhere and forever.
William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist
The Annual Meeting pretty much descended into what James McPherson, in The Struggle for Equality
called "an orgy of name-calling" (McPherson 298)
And then it got personal. Real personal. Chaput explains:
In a stinging attack on the ex-slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass, another friend-turned-foe, Garrison asked how Douglass could equate freedom with suffrage. When he “fled from Maryland to the free soil of Massachusetts, where he found safety, protection, freedom of thought and speech,” did he not deem such freedom a “gift,” even if it did not include access to the ballot? asked Garrison.
After Garrison spoke, British abolitionist George Thompson
(and do note that an "apprenticeship" program similar to the Banks-Lincoln reconstruction program had already been tried in the British West Indies) took the stage and noticed Frederick Douglass in the crowd. He invited Douglass on stage to speak and Douglass reluctantly agreed to do so. So when Douglass says:
one of the reasons why I have not been more frequently to the meetings of this society, has been because of the disposition on the part of some of my friends to call me out upon the platform, even when they knew that there was some difference of opinion and of feeling between those who rightfully belong to this platform and myself; and for fear of being misconstrued, as desiring to interrupt or disturb the proceedings of these meetings, I have usually kept away, and have thus been deprived of that educating influence, which I am always free to confess is of the highest order, descending from this platform.
we know exactly
who he's talking about.
And when Douglass goes on to say:
I went especially, however, with that word of Mr. Phillips, which is the criticism of Gen. Banks and Gen. Banks’ policy. I hold that that policy is our chief danger at the present moment; that it practically enslaves the Negro, and makes the Proclamation of 1863 a mockery and delusion. What is freedom? It is the right to choose one’s own employment. Certainly it means that, if it means anything; and when any individual or combination of individuals undertakes to decide for any man when he shall work, where he shall work, at what he shall work, and for what he shall work, he or they practically reduce him to slavery. [Applause.] He is a slave.
We know exactly
what Douglass is talking about.
It's easy to imagine 21st century conservatives excising the references to the Banks-Lincoln reconstruction policy in Louisiana and the Emancipation Proclamation and running with the portion of the paragraph beginning with "What is freedom?" as a (conservative) justification of everything from the meeting of "freedom" to the demonization of all manner of social programs to the pernicious influence and interference of government in people's lives.
When Justice Clarence Thomas used the Douglass quote in his dissent from the majority in Grutter v. Bollinger, he drained Douglass' statement to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society of all meaning and context. Given what Thomas's ultimate dissenting argument is, given that Thomas makes repeated references to "racial discrimination" in his Grutter V. Bollinger dissent, I think that Douglass' simple short statement in his 1866 Atlantic essay, Reconstruction, would have sufficed:
Fortunately, the Constitution of the United States knows no distinction between citizens on account of color.
And while that statement, too, would be taken out of context, at least it has the added value of actually being somewhat consistent with Douglass' views on the Constitution
[I will admit feeling here that I am making Thomas' case for him with that Douglass quote. For one, I don't necessarily agree with Douglass' interpretation of the Constitution although I understand why Douglass was making the case that he did (Dr. King made a similar case). William Lloyd Garrison's argument (contra-Douglass) that the Constitution was pro-slavery is equally compelling and, in fact, the more convincing one to me.
I simply feel that at the time of Thomas's Grutter V. Bollinger dissent, he either had a lazy-ass law clerk or that Thomas couldn't resist a jab at white "liberals" even though, if I am reading correctly, a majority of "white liberals" at that Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society agreed with Douglass's view on the emancipation/reconstruction/suffrage issue.]
21st century conservatives love Frederick Douglass. Here are two examples.
Now, if 21st century conservatives want to quote from this particular speech of Frederick Douglass, then they need to reconcile their views with these statements from the very same speech:
I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, as they will be swept down, when the Davises and Toombses and Stephenses... there will be this rank undergrowth of treason...You will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers. That spirit will still remain; and whoever sees the Federal Government extended over those Southern States will see that Government in a strange land, and not only in a strange land, but in an enemy’s land.
The story of our inferiority is an old dodge, as I have said; for wherever men oppress their fellows, wherever they enslave them, they will endeavor to find the needed apology for such enslavement and oppression in the character of the people oppressed and enslaved.
Of course, any number of Douglass speeches could be quoted that would be anathema to 21st century conservatives and libertarians:
I admit that the Negro, and especially the plantation Negro...is in a deplorable condition since his emancipation... I contend that the fault is not his, but that of his heartless accusers. He is the victim of a cunningly devised swindle, one which paralyzes his energies, suppresses his ambition, and blasts all his hopes; and though he is nominally free he is actually a slave. I here and now denounce his so-called emancipation as a stupendous fraud — a fraud upon him, a fraud upon the world. It was not so meant by Abraham Lincoln; it was not so meant by the Republican party; but whether so meant or not, it is practically a lie, keeping the word of promise to the ear and breaking it to the heart. Frederick Douglass I Denounce the So-Called Emancipation as a Stupendous Fraud (1888)
From the same speech:
The love of power is one of the strongest traits in the Anglo-Saxon race. This love of power common to the white race has been nursed and strengthened at the South by slavery: accustomed during two hundred years to the unlimited possession and exercise of irresponsible power, the love of it has become stronger by habit. To assume that this feeling of pride and power has died out and disappeared from the South is to assume a miracle. Any man who tells you that it has died out or has ceased to be exercised and made effective, tells you that which is untrue and in the nature of things could not be true. Not only is the love of power there, but a talent for its exercise has been fully developed. This talent makes the old master class of the South not only the masters of the Negro, but the masters of Congress and, if not checked, will make them the masters of the nation.
Soon after those words, in that very speech, Douglass delineates the devastating nexus of race and class for 19th century free blacks (especially in the South) in excruciating detail. 21st century conservatives seem to forget that Frederick Douglass lived through most of the Gilded Age and in his later speeches you can clearly see his concern for economic justice for black people (true enough, Douglass denounced the labor unions of his era as racist but Douglass did see the need for labor unions, in fact, Douglass was president of a labor union for a time).
In closing, no amount of selective quotation by 21st century conservatives can minimize or alter the radical impact of Frederick Douglass's activism on the behalf of black American citizens then or now.
Nor can such selective quotations and sentiments be used to browbeat and demonize black American citizens and their allies, even if those sentiments are vomited out or spilled on the page by the (very) few 21st century conservatives who also happen to African-American.
I am pretty confident that were Frederick Douglass able to time travel into the 21st century and to look at the Republican Party, he wouldn't recognize it.
Frederick Douglass would recognize 21st century conservatives and Republicans exactly as they are now. And so do I.