Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Racists Among Us

Yesterday, I had to leave work early and caught the most amazing dialogue on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation. The host, Neal Conan, was discussing Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation with guest Richard Striner of Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland.

I shared the transcript excerpt below with Anonymous D as I noticed the caller was from Howard City, Michigan (and I'm sure there are many fine people in Howard City):
I wondered if that was in your mission. I didn't catch the location until I found the transcript. But I heard yet another amazing thing on Public Radio yesterday. On a theme of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, a caller came on --- and maybe I'll just let you read it. The next caller is also interesting with a voice of such a refined Southern lady from Charleston, SC. 
Anonymous D responded:
Yeah Howard City was in my Mission, actually in one of my areas.  The racial history of Michigan is interesting, especially in light of this conversation.  Most African Americans in Michigan came north during the war to work factory jobs, vacated by whites who were off fighting in Europe or the South Pacific.  When the War was over, to my understanding, the whites came back to their jobs and the, by that time skilled, black laborers were left jobless in pre-civil-rights Michigan which wasn’t exactly a forgiving place.
I’m not going to comment on the rest of it other than to say: Ugly.
[Later] My observations of Michigan history are not scholarly but anecdotal-based on the comments of residents I talked to during my mission and after.  Interestingly the best popular history of Michigan was written by Bruce Catton of Civil War History fame, himself a Michigander.  Don’t be too hard on my adopted homeland. Michigan did sent many regiments to fight for the Union.
Now, for the ugliness:

Jason's on the line with us from Howard City in Michigan.
JASON: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
JASON: Abraham Lincoln is my absolute least president - or least-favorite president. And I think he really did an awful thing with the Emancipation Proclamation. All of a sudden, you have a huge group of people who are uneducated, have - cannot, you know, can't read - and this is going to sound very racist, but it is true - were basically bred for size and, you know, low intelligence for years and years and years. And what it did is created all the problems we have now: the poverty in the inner cities, the, you know, the lack of education.
CONAN: Jason, it not only sounds racist, it is. I am astonished that anybody would make such a claim in 2012.
JASON: I understand that. But I - that's what I said, it would sound very racist. But what I'm saying is it should have been a gradual process, not immediate. It was just a war tactic basically, nothing else.
CONAN: Again, that's...
JASON: That's what I believe. I know it sounds horribly racist, and I'm not a racist person, but, I mean...
CONAN: I think some listeners might question you on that point. I apologize for saying that, Jason. But I think that's right. The - well, let me ask Richard Striner. I mean, the idea that you would perpetuate...
JASON: Hello.
CONAN: ...such a travesty as this, as slavery, is just appalling.
STRINER: Well, our caller said that it should've been a gradual process. Lincoln tried to make it a gradual process, and the leaders of the slave states simply refused to listen. Eventually, they couldn't even be paid to try a gradual program as an experiment. They simply refused. And under those circumstances, given the military power of the Confederate states, the question is: How could slavery be ended at all, under any circumstances? Unless, when faced with this situation, Lincoln decided to use more force.
You can beg. You can plead. You can reason with people. But if they absolutely refuse, then you're left with a decision what to do. Lincoln made his decision, and I think he made the right decision.
CONAN: That - interesting, the question of reparations - not to the slaves, but to slave owners - was later used, not in the Confederate states, which were offered that deal, but in the border states you mentioned.
STRINER: Well, Great Britain had abolished slavery in the 1830s through a gradual process of compensated emancipation. It had worked. The process didn't take that long, about seven years, I believe. It was quite successful and quite bloodless. Of course, the magnitude of the problem, the magnitude of slavery in the United States, was much greater. Lincoln was prepared to have it take decades.
He was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort that would've been largely deficit-financed, by the way, through federal bonds. And the leaders of the slave states wouldn't listen. Lincoln was prepared to do whatever non-violent things he could.
In fact, this is a bit of a digression, but in 1865, after Congress finally passed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, it had to be ratified. And in February 1865, Lincoln actually flirted with the idea of paying all the slave states to ratify to the tune of $400 million - also deficit-financed. The Cabinet didn't like it, so he retracted that idea. Lincoln was absolutely willing to try every gradual, peaceful, reasonable thing. But when the leaders of the other side refused and all of these thousands of men were dying on the battlefield, Lincoln decided - well, I think he got quite justifiably angry. And he decided, all right, you're not going to get paid anything.
CONAN: Let's go...
STRINER: You're not going to be given more time.
CONAN: Let's go hear from Beth, and Beth is on line with us from Charleston.
BETH: Yes. Hi, Neal.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
BETH: As distasteful as I find the previous caller's comments, I - my question is along a little bit of the same lines. I was just curious if Lincoln was aware, or had he even pondered the possibility of the slaves that were emancipated, having no skills, to be able to take of themselves, and if after the fact that he was aware of their difficulties and if he ever commented on having regretted doing it.
CONAN: Richard Striner?
STRINER: He never regretted doing it. In fact, he said many times, if I go down in history for any one thing, I want it to be for this. As to the transition from slavery to freedom, as to teaching skills, during the Civil War, a number of experiments were undertaken with Lincoln's knowledge and approval to begin trying out different methods of educating the freed men sometimes on the plantations of their former masters, particularly in Mississippi, after the surrender of Vicksburg in July 4th, 1863.
In 1865, the Radical Republicans led the Republican Congress in creating the Freedmen's Bureau - a very important early social welfare agency - on a one-year experimental basis to offer educational, legal, medical assistance to former slaves. Congress passed it. Lincoln signed it. If Lincoln had lived, there are many signs that in fall of 1865, he would've worked with a new Republican Congress to take measure far more vigorous than that.
BETH: Neal, if I may just comment one more time, I was wondering: I'm not very up on my own history down here and I regret that, but I wondered if your guest could comment on once the Emancipation Proclamation was made known publicly to everyone, if the migration of the former slaves was pretty in mass, or if maybe some of them...
CONAN: I get your point, Beth, and we're running out of time, so I'll give Richard Striner a chance to answer.
BETH: Thank you very much. Thank you.
CONAN: Go ahead. 
STRINER: The results were very uneven in different parts of the former slave states. Some slaves went to Southern cities right away. Some stayed on the plantation. Some left the South entirely. Some wandered around in confusion. Some crossed Union lines and began to work with agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. The results were very uneven. The situation was turbulent, especially before the end of the war, and in 1865, too.
CONAN: Richard Striner, thanks very much for your time today 
STRINER: You're welcome. Thank you.
CONAN: Richard Striner, a professor of history at Washington College, author of the book "Lincoln and Race." You can find a link to his piece for The New York Times' Disunion blog on our website at npr.org. He joined us from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about the experience of growing up in the shadow of a brother or sister with a cognitive disability [irony unintended]. Join us for that.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Early this morning, I changed the caption to my Lincoln picture above and to the right. Click on the link for the Gettysburg Address. It will make you feel better.


  1. I am just sitting (okay laying, my back is shot today) flabbergasted. I guess I shouldn't be, but I am. I have the get over the shock before I try to say more.

  2. I bet the caller was a Tea Party person.

    1. While tempting to assign him to one group or another, the only thing we can fairly judge is that the guy is a racist. The most interesting aspect was his "I know this sounds racist, but . . ." or "I'm not a racist, but . . ." I've heard a lot of people say those phrases. Maybe if those kind of thoughts come into our heads we ought to stop and analyze the idea a little more first. Freedom of expression is a divine right, but that big "but" might give us clues that we need to reexamine our thinking to bring out our better angels.

  3. I lived in the Deep South for a few years, and I believed at the time that racism still is the biggest obstacle to lots of things there.

    Unfortunately, it's not confined to the South - or directed toward only one race in this country.

  4. I don't have a great deal of personal experience with racism, (certainly I have seen instances of racism, but nothing consistently ingrained) but my husband grew up in Texas, and his experiences were radically different than mine. I knew that he grew up with a lot of racist friends, but until we were talking last night, I didnt realize that the racism he grew up with kept him from being interested in the church as a teenager.

    Although the church had stopped the priesthood ban and was no longer fighting against integration, the most racist kids he went to school with were LDS. Many of the fathers of his LDS friends were still KKK members (in the late 90s) and racial slurs and jokes were common at church activities he attended with his friends. He was not a member of the church, and never attended a church service as a teenager, so he can't comment of what was taught on Sundays. What he was aware of was that things like having an African American member of the military come to a scout activity were enough to have more than half the families keep their sons home.

    I don't know how much it may have changed since then. He is in his late 30s and has not been back since high school. While he briefly dated several Mormon girls in high school, he was always uncomfortable with their parents. When he met me, a liberal Mormon with friends of many colors and religions, including an exhusband whose family was from India, he wasn't quite sure what to make of me. It wasn't until he realized that there really are Mormons who are not racist, and at least here the open minded are a large enough group that the racists (if we have them) keep their views to themselves on Sundays.

    I am glad that I wasn't raised in Texas, and I hope things are better now. It is a sobering reminder that we are still only a generation from the priesthood ban, and it may take several more to fix the damage from the church's stand on civil rights. Maybe the caller isn't quite as out of touch with the main stream as I thought. My husband is pretty sure that his Texan friends wouldn't be embarrassed to voice similar comments. Sigh.

    1. I can't speak to your husband's experience and I've never lived in the South - although I've visited a few times and found some odd things I won't go into here.

      I am very surprised to hear of church members in the 90s being in the KKK. I have never seen such overt racist behavior. I have heard a lot of conversations while not quite as stark as Jason above, on some of the same themes and with those same false caveats "I'm not a racist, but . . ." In fact I heard one from a church member at work today - a rather clueless guy to begin with and it was about Asians, not African-Americans, but . . . .

    2. Honestly, I have heard him talk about all of his friends whose parents were part of the KKK, and the activities that his family didn't participate in because they didn't agree. What was most interesting to me is that he assumed I would know that the families were LDS. It was just that omnipresent a part of his particular experiences. Mostly it makes me sad, for those families who (I don't believe) were following the gospel, and for all the people like my husband, who dismissed the gospel because of it.


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