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.