Some Thoughts on Race and Politics
In the Nov. 25, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books (NYRB), there is a review by James M. McPherson, a Professor Emeritus at Princeton, of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. You can read an excerpt if you go to the Table of Contents at:
(You can read the whole text of articles without a red asterisk. I can recommend “Outstripping the News” (Doonesbury), “How Political Was Picasso,” and “Jimmy Baldwin.” I haven’t read the one on “Generation Why” yet but plan to. It’s a review of “The Social Network”).
This is not a review of McPherson’s review but rather some comments on a passage about Lincoln’s views on slavery which I think apply to our times as much as to his. Lincoln had opposed slavery from his earliest public years, but he had some empathy with the South that was not shared with the abolitionists, and he did not hate slave-owners. “I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people,” he said in Peoria, Illinois in 1854. “When southern people tell us they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we; I acknowledge the fact.” He also said he could “understand and appreciate” how “very difficult” it would be “to get rid of“ slavery “in any satisfactory way…If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do” about the institution. He said his first impulse was to free them all and send them to Liberia, but that this was impossible. “What then? Free them all, and keep them among us as underlings? Is it quite certain that this betters their condition?”
When asked about the abolitionist proposal to “free [the slaves] and make them politically and socially our equals?” Lincoln confessed that:
…my own feelings will not admit of this: and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not. Whether this feeling accords with justice and sound judgment, is not the sole question… A universal feeling, whether well or ill founded, cannot be safely disregarded. (Italics mine)
Perhaps it was knowing that 100,000 members of his million man army were black and fighting for the Union that convinced him that there was no alternative to full rights for blacks and an interracial society.
So how is it in our time? That universal feeling is still with us. In the house where I grew up, there were no expressions of racism, not ever. I think my father, Barron Beshoar, was one of the founders of the Urban League in Denver and during WWII his job at War Manpower was placing minorities in defense jobs. There’s the story of him driving up to a copper mine with a truckload of African-Americans and confronting the mine management with the choice to hire the blacks or do without – and perhaps risk takeover of the mine by the government. After the war when he was a Time Life correspondent, his secretary and photographer were Japanese Americans. He worked with some Hispanic groups in Denver, following a tradition started by his grandfather, Dr. Michael Beshoar, and carried on by his father, Dr. Ben Beshoar, who throughout his career worked with Hispanic politicians and delivered Hispanic babies all over Las Animas County, many of them pro bono. Ben was also the doctor for the United Mine Workers, whose members were massacred at Ludlow He was treating all those Greeks and Poles and Czechs and Italians and even a few Japanese and also participating as an advocate for their case in the political arena.
Something happened. Sometime before Ben died in 1958, I remember my father telling me that Ben had uncharacteristically made several anti-Semitic statements the last few times he saw him. My father was mystified. How did that come from a man who had defended minorities for his whole life? I’d never really thought much about anti-Semitism, -- it just didn’t come up much and either general awareness of the Holocaust was yet to come or I had made a separate compartment for it – I just don’t remember, but I took note of what my father said about Ben and vowed I would never let it happen to me. Roll forward 20 years. I’m visiting my father and low and behold: out it comes, one anti-Semitic statement after another, interspersed with criticisms of every racial group you can imagine except German, of which he might have been 1/16 but probably less.
I hope I’ve stayed with the principals that were drilled into me when I was young. Occasionally I suppose I have said something that wasn’t politically correct – the language does change over time – and it took me a long time to accept gay rights, but I think I’m there now. Still that universal feeling that Lincoln talked about seems to be in all of us. It’s probably evolution at work; we protect our group by excluding others. I envy my kids who seem to be able to move about a multi-racial society without thinking about it. Fortunately they are the future.
I would like to think that the universal feeling will die out with my generation, and until it does our children and their children will keep us on track, but I’m not hopeful. If my friend Norman Terrell didn’t coin the term “crypto-racism,” I heard it first from him. What I fear is that even as it becomes politically expedient to avoid racist statements, racism in action will continue. You can find the formula in the agendae of the Tea Party and the Republican Party. Their leaders would express outrage at this accusation, but they won’t be as outraged as I am about their callous disregard for the well-being of those less fortunate than they are.