Divisive Rhetoric and the Mythology of the Dunning School

I’ve been busy traveling for work, so this is not as prompt as I would like, but I would like to continue the conversation about liberalism and white supremacy that we started last week. The controversy over Bernie Sanders remarks regarding reparations and the half-hearted way that liberals address issues of race seemed to confuse many people. Many considered this a political attack on Sanders and support for Hillary Clinton– which could not be further from the case. If Bernie Sanders inability to address racism in a meaningful way is disappointing and disheartening, Hillary Clinton’s racist apologia is outright disgusting. But it is far from surprising. In fact, Clinton’s attitude towards race mirrors that of mainstream America, right and left. Her pandering response about being inspired by Abraham Lincoln during last night’s town hall debate is a prime example of the moderate’s belief in the long discredited “Dunning School” narrative of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and the virtue of avoiding “divisive” rhetoric or politics.

Unless you had a particularly liberal history teacher in high school or a scholar of the Reconstruction era as your Modern American History professor in college you were likely taught some version of the Dunning School narrative. The story of Reconstruction in the hands of a Dunningite is as follows: Lincoln’s plan for reconstruction was to reach out to the defeated South with an olive branch. Confederates would be brought back into the union, order would be restored, and the great healing of the American divide (white people shooting each other, not the issue of owning black people) would commence. His death provoked an already angry Congress into a radical, vengeful response. Reconstruction itself is rife with corruption. Terms like scalawag and carpetbagger were created to describe northern political and business leaders who moved south to capitalize on new opportunities. Blacks were portrayed as incapable of self-rule or contributing to sound governance (ignoring efforts by local whites to undermine them and echoing the kinds of statements made about black rule in places like Detroit). The south, and the nation, would have been better off if previous white leadership (you know, the terrorists who started a civil war to protect their ability to own black people) had been returned to power.

Regardless of his intent, the Dunning School narrative quickly became a defense of Jim Crow– see, blacks NEED us to rule them– and part of the larger “Lost Cause” mythology. This view romanticizes antebellum America, promotes the idea that slavery was not “that bad,” argues that the conflict that led to war was about “states-rights” and not slavery (despite nearly every document, public statement, and journal from the men who led the rebellion at the time saying, in no uncertain terms, that it was indeed about slavery). It promotes the idea that something beautiful was lost when the south was defeated– a more elegant, genteel, agrarian, and “Christian” society was destroyed by the impersonal, crude, industrial, and secular world of the north. The Yankee interlopers came to the south, pillaged it in the name of “equality,” and destroyed a better way of life.

You might notice something missing from this narrative. The existence of black people and whether or not a world was good, fair, or “Christian” for them. This is by design.

Like most political and historical narratives, it is rooted in some small truth. It’s defenders point to these, clinging desperately to the idea that it validates the entire theory. There was corruption in the reconstruction governments. There were abuses of power by the federal government. But these truths, partial at best, were used to paper over larger points which were almost entirely fraudulent– particularly, the portrayal of blacks as childlike or simple-minded savages who needed the paternal guidance of whites. It rests on the faulty idea that there was anything noble about plantation life. It presents slave-owning political and military leaders as tragic figures, doomed to fight a war that could not be won in defense of their way of life without questioning whether or not that way of life deserved to survive. News flash: it did not.

The historical issues with this narrative are too many to mention, but here are a few. The idea that Lincoln would have been embraced by the monsters of the south is laughable. They are the very people who murdered him. Lincoln’s assassination was the continuation of the war by other means. It persisted through Reconstruction. It was the ruling power of Jim Crow. It was responsible for killing men like Edgar Meggers. It murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. It still wreaks havoc today. And the blame lies entirely with the white supremacist, not blacks or their political allies. The notion that not occupying the south with federal troops would have been less divisive is insane– it would simply have led to an early imposition of Jim Crow. Nothing about the history of the south, prior to Reconstruction or after, indicates that they would have peaceably accepted the rights of black people willingly. But these acts are considered divisive in the Dunning narrative. Apparently, there is nothing divisive about disenfranchising people. But that is sort of the point. None of these commentators, historians or contemporary political figures alike, are concerned with actually preventing a divisive climate. They are simply avoiding controversy over how blacks are treated.

That is what makes the Clintons so repulsive to me. This has long been their approach to black rights (or really, the rights of any group). Popularity = morality. Sanders is different. He’s been willing on many subjects to be unpopular. But he is not there yet on race. He is hardly unique in that fashion. Neither are most of us.

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