What Can A Pacifist Say About Racism?

What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.

“American society’s admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: “Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North’s victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:

This got a lot of retweets and responses, and the increasingly popular cultural critic doubled down:

The conversation spread. Inevitably, the popular idea that World War II was also a “good war” because it ended the Holocaust (ignoring the fact that World War II also created the Holocaust) was invoked:

Ta.Nehisi Coates’s statements here are hardly new or shocking. But it is shocking and upsetting that statements like this seem to carry the force of truth, and that pacifists should fail to challenge this rash idea. Pacifists need to speak with a louder voice, especially since facts are on our side. History shows that war is often a primary cause of racism, and that war is nearly always an enabler of its worst offenses. War doesn’t correct racism; it generates it.

How can a pacifist begin to speak about racism, when emotions are high and words seem misplaced? First, we can point out that the obvious fact that wars tend to pit ethnic groups against each other. This makes it nearly self-evident that war aggravates feelings of ethnic hatred, that militarism is likely to be a primary cause of racism.

Once we begin to look at the actual evidence, it becomes clear that war and racism are hopelessly entwined, that they amplify each other, and that even the fear of possible future war can be a tremendous enabler of racism. An acclaimed recent history book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor hammers this point home (we wrote about this book earlier this year in a blog post titled “Blood Alienation“). This important book shows that fear of a militarized slave revolt played a gigantic role in the South’s debates over the future of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. This fear originated with news of the bloody Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, and was increased by Nat Turner’s attempted slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.

Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy counters the popular idea that greed was the primary engine of the slave economy in the American South. Greed may have been the original motivation for the wide acceptance of slavery — sure, there was a lot of money in sugar cane and cotton. But The Internal Enemy shows that an obsessive fear of black uprisings began to dominate government policy in Southern states before the Civil War. Paranoid fears that white women would be raped en masse during a slave uprising added a psychotic edge to this fear (this meme would later justify many lynchings after the Civil War).

Alan Taylor’s book suggests that an overwhelming fear of race war left Southern states incapable of rational decision-making when the time came for these states to follow the rest of the enlightened world and outlaw slavery. The North could outlaw slavery, and so could England, because their smaller slave populations didn’t present a significant internal threat. States like Virginia saw their slave populations as a terrifying and highly capable militant presence (a fact that has been largely lost to history until Alan Taylor’s book) and thus could not converge upon moderate and humane practices with regard to this internal enemy. Fear of race war defeated every Southern impulse towards moderation.

To suggest that war helps to fix racism is to suggest that a recovering alcoholic take a drink to steady his resolve, that a tank of gasoline be used to fight a fire. No serious thinker can look at the historical evidence and continue to believe that this method can work. Of course, we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a serious thinker, and many of his Twitter respondents probably are too, so we can only conclude that they have not looked at the evidence.

One key point of evidence is the fact that the loss of the Civil War created a shared white/black society that never came to peace. Instead, after 1865, many Southerners dealt with the humiliation of a crushing military defeat by turning the refusal to assimilate with blacks into a badge of defiance and pride. As movies like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation show, it became a sign of military distinction among prominent Southerners after the loss of the Civil War to refuse to associate with the victors of the war, either white or black. This type of “victory” was not a good ground upon which to build a civil society between whites and blacks.

After the loss of the Civil War, the humiliation of invasion and defeat replaced the fear of slave revolt as the main ingredient in the cauldron of racism that has been swirling in the post-Confederate states ever since. The rebellion is over, but the hatred that lingers after the loss of a hard-fought war still pollutes this section of American society today. This appears to be a frequent phenomenon after a war is lost. The Nazis who congregated in Germany after the loss of World War I were also sore losers. Sore losers do a lot of damage.

It’s very good that slavery was ended between 1963 and 1865. But military vanquishment by blockade and invasion was the worst possible way to achieve this result, because racial integration was imposed by a hated enemy rather than accepted from within. This is not a good model for the future of our planet. I hope that those who think of war as a redeeming force will consider the alternative of pacifism, which is a broad, flexible and (hopefully) emerging philosophy.

Pacifism often includes the belief that peace is a redeeming force for society as a whole, and that the best way to achieve a peaceful world — which means a world without racism — is to follow the peaceful methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Since social sicknesses like racism are generated by the culture of hyper-militarism, the best way to cure these sicknesses is to cure our addiction to the culture of hyper-militarism. Romantic paeans to noble war by Atlantic Monthly writers do not help this case.

Pacifists should explain that evidence of the damage war does to our society is present in human history at least as prominently as nitrogen is present in the air we breathe. (For anyone who is curious: nitrogen makes up 78.09% of the air we breathe, though nobody ever talks about all this nitrogen. Fear of violence and perception of internal threat probably accounts for at least 78.09% of our problems with racism, and nobody ever talks about this either.)

Besides quoting Alan Taylor on public attitudes in pre-Civil War Virginia, what other historical facts can a pacifist cite against the ridiculous suggestion that war can correct or cure racism? Plenty, plenty, plenty. We can remember that the entire practice of human slavery is based on military conquest, that a slave is a prisoner of war or the descendant of a prisoner of war. We can speak of all the atrocities of the past hundred years, every single one of which took place in the context of total war: Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine, Nanking, Poland, Czechoslovokia, Hungary, Romania, Tibet, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria.

We have previously noted here that genocide is always enabled by war, that genocide never occurs outside of the context of war. Pacifists need to help explain that genocide, like racism, is a direct by-product of militarism. It is impossible to imagine that we will ever have a world without racism, or without genocide, unless this is also a world without war.

Scratch a racist and you’ll find a militarist. Remember the outbreak of anti-semitism enabled by the Dreyfus Affair in France? In fact, Dreyfus was considered a “German Jew”, and the entire explanation for the vicious attacks against Dreyfus can be found in France’s stunning loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to the fear of Germany that became a French obsession after this loss. It’s a vital and little-known point that Dreyfus was not singled out because the French had suddenly become intolerant of Judaism. He was singled out because as an ethnic Jew he was suspected of having ties to Germany.

The pattern repeats over and over: a war is fought, and racism follows in its wake. Or a war is anticipated, and racism becomes a sensible policy. What about the slaughter of Native Americans in 19th Century USA? Like the slaves in Virginia, like Dreyfus in France, like the Armenians in Turkey, the Native Americans were seen as an internal threat, a strategic liability in time of war. We didn’t kill the Native Americans because we hated them; we killed them because we were scared of them. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, did the USA force Japanese-Americans into concentration camps because we suddenly hated them? No, we forced them into concentration camps because we were afraid of them. Wherever war arrives, racism follows.

War as a cure for racism? A worse idea has rarely ever been suggested. I don’t blame Ta-Nahesi Coates for expressing his frustration at American racism in 2014 by praising the outcome of the Civil War. But war is no prescription for racism, and I hope nobody thinks that the Civil War stands as proof that a good war can exist. And what would have been the result of this “good war”, I’d like to ask Ta-Nehisi Coates, if the Confederacy had won?

I don’t blame Ta-Nehesi Coates for writing what he feels. But I do blame my fellow pacifists — are you out there, anyone? — for not speaking up more effectively to join the conversation and share some historical insights when emotional paeans to the nobility of war are widely shared. The fact that many people seem to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates and few people are pointing out the flip side of his story shows once again what we’ve observed here before: committed pacifists need to do a much better job of making our voices heard, of saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.

10 Responses

  1. You’ve said a lot about the
    You’ve said a lot about the civil war remarks. What do you think of the argument that peaceful protesting doesn’t work? I blog on tumblr and there’s not really any push for peaceful protesting.

  2. Hi Tweed … to answer that
    Hi Tweed … to answer that question, I bring up the examples of Gandhi’s leadership of India’s independence movement, and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Pretty impressive success models, wouldn’t you agree?

  3. Powerful interests vying to
    Powerful interests vying to control key resources and gain economic advantage is at the root of most, if not all militarism. Public fear and racism enable militarism– make it possible for the powers that be to raise armies and divert public wealth to their campaigns. Racism is also a byproduct of war, as you say. I think other enablers also apply– such as nationalism, a deep reverence for “military service,” even economic incentives for this service.

    I didn’t realize that “fear of a slave uprising” factored into the South’s anti-abolitionist stance. This makes sense; however, I wonder if it was the key motivation for war, given the economic repercussions that would be felt in the South if slavery were abolished.

    Basically, fighting over resources– land, minerals, oil, water, etc.— drives the power brokers that initiate most war, but large-scale war wouldn’t be possible if “the masses” who actually fight and support it weren’t given to the fear-based scenarios used as justification, and various psychologies of militarism.

    It’s more complex now, with the rise of so-called “humanitarian intervention” wars, ” private “defense” contractors, and “asymmetric” conflict (i.e. “fighting the terrorists”). But I still think that at the heart of it, powerful interests dictate war, and mass-psychology enables it.

  4. Well, Mnaz, I think what you
    Well, Mnaz, I think what you are saying describes the conventional wisdom: war is a product of greed. I understand why the conventional wisdom is so widely believed, but the more I learn about history, the less I think it is true.

    The masses, I think, are already aware of both the upside and the downside of war (and they know that they usually get the worst of this downside). Government leaders and politicians often are also aware of both the upside and the downside. If you study the actual historical accounts of the decisions to declare war, looking broadly at the wars around the world of the last 200 years, you will find that much of the actual substantial discussion involves not economic advantage or material benefit but rather mortal threat and fear. Fear and threat is what is emphasized to “the masses” when a nation decides to go to war. Fear and threat is also, according to historical records, what decision-making leaders and politicians discuss among themselves when they decide to go to war.

    Let’s look at the most ruinous and disastrous single war of the last hundred years: the First World War in 1914. (I call this the most disastrous war for its immediate effects and also because it led directly to its sequel, the Second World War.) Most of the leaders who created this disaster dreaded the decisions they were making even as they made it — famously, Kaiser Wilhelm II tried to pull out at the last minute, but was unable to do so with enough resolve. Look at the reasoning on all sides, from Serbia to Austria to Russia to Germany to France to England, and you will see that they all acted for one primary reason: fear that they would be destroyed by their enemies if they did not act in defense.

    So, I still say that we need a greater understanding of the role fear plays in militarism. I think this understanding is an important key to a more peaceful future for the world.

  5. There’s always a certain
    There’s always a certain degree of fear and threat in the mix, though not always firmly based in reality. History’s various invasions point to the wisdom of maintaining a credible homeland defense, and I’m sure the threat of outside aggression in 1914 Europe at least seemed authentic to both the masses and leaders making fateful (and self-fulfilling) decisions.

    I suppose one century isn’t that much time relative the history of militarism, which spans many centuries, but it seems like so much has changed from 1914-2014. It’s no longer primarily an era of nation marching vs. nation anymore; it’s more about the major world powers that emerged from that era trying to impose their will on global geopolitics and the global economy. Thus, all of the various “brush fire” wars in resource-rich and/or strategically located states, and the constant push to establish compliant proxy regimes in these states. In this scenario, typically fear and threat are overblown by politicians to “justify” preemptive incursions far from the homeland, as we saw with the US invasion of Iraq (and I would argue in Afghanistan too). I really doubt that the Cheney mob was genuinely concerned about any credible threat from Iraq as they mobilized for war in 2002.

    But I do agree with your last paragraph here– a greater understanding of the role fear plays in militarism is needed. Absolutely. As well as an understanding of how it is utilized by leaders making decisions to go to war.

  6. Yeah, Mnaz, that’s a good
    Yeah, Mnaz, that’s a good point about US invasion of Iraq. Hard to imagine that the masterminds behind that one were sincerely afraid of Saddam Hussein. However, let’s remember that the Iraq War was totally sold to the American people as the prevention of Saddam’s “smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud”. The fact that this turned out to be an obvious fraud doesn’t mean that American citizens weren’t actually terrified in 2003, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks.

  7. —- “The fact that this
    —- “The fact that this turned out to be an obvious fraud doesn’t mean that American citizens weren’t actually terrified in 2003, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks.”

    Oh, I don’t dispute this at all, Levi. Public fear is one of the prime enablers of militarism, as I noted above. I was thinking of your point that fear is not limited to the masses; it’s also weighed by decision-making leaders as they decide to go to war. That’s true, but sometimes whatever threats may exist are not the primary motivations for war. Sometimes these threats are intentionally overstated, or worse, fraudulently fabricated.

  8. I agree, Mnaz. While I still
    I agree, Mnaz. While I still think that fear is the primary motivation for war, both in terms of leadership and public support, there are certainly many cases in history where greedy and opportunistic leaders took advantage of the public’s fear to pursue private gains. The Iraq War of 2003 appears to fit this description.

  9. I might go so far as to say
    I might go so far as to say that fear is ALWAYS the primary motivation for war. But there is, and always has been, a disconnect between people who start wars and the people who fight them. Fear is utilized by the former to militarize the latter. (In centuries past, the conscripted latter often had little say in the matter.)

    And if fear is always the primary motivation, leaders generally (but not always, I suppose) “fear” fundamentally different things than the people they lead. Leaders fear things like missing strategic geopolitical opportunities, or not taking care of the interests that brought them to power, or being labeled “soft on (fill in your favorite ISM here).” The people they lead (and mislead) fear much more immediate perceived threats– things like “bomb-in-a-briefcase” scenarios, and “enemies about to invade us if we don’t act now” scenarios in general.

  10. Levi, Thanks for these wise
    Levi, Thanks for these wise and thoughtful words. It is horrifying to see the idea of war encouraged as a way to end an unacceptable political situation. The Civil War was a devastation, and as you say, it has created a festering sense of rage and resentment still roiling beneath the surface in the south, and in some cases still prolonging racism. The ending of slavery was a great thing, but the Civil War was a violent rending of the social fabric that has never been mended. Thanks for raising this subject, and for treating it with such perception.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!