What Can We Learn From the History of Struggle Against White Supremacy?
White supremacy has a very long history in North America. We discuss its origins and the history of struggle against it with Prof. Gerald Horne, to see what we can be learnt for confronting white supremacy today
White supremacy has a very long history in North America. We discuss its origins and the history of struggle against it with Prof. Gerald Horne, to see what we can be learnt for confronting white supremacy today
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.
The terrorist attack on a Walmart in El Paso has brought the rise and danger of white supremacist nationalism into full focus and is part of all of our conversations. The right-wing violence that has become an all too common occurrence in our nation are not mere aberrations. Sure, it’s about Trump, 4chan, 8chan and the deeply racist nature of our society and world, but it just didn’t pop out of thin air. These movements and attacks are not new, but are embedded in our society from our past in the very founding of this nation, and in the words of our guest, made up of the revolutions and counter revolutions that make up our American history. What does our American history tell us about this moment, about the time that we’re in?
What can we learn from it, and what does it say about our future and the future possibilities and the strategies for us to consider as we face this white nationalist movement? We are joined by Dr. Gerald Horne who holds the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. He’s written numerous books. His latest books are Storming the Heavens and most recently, The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism. Gerald Horne, welcome. Good to have you with us here at The Real News. Glad you could be with us in Baltimore.
GERALD HORNE: Thank you for inviting me.
MARC STEINER: Yes. I like this interaction much better than the distance. This is good. As we were talking about in the introduction, I think that what we’re facing now with this white supremacist, alt-right, however people want to describe this nationalist movement, white nationalist movement, it has deep roots in our country. This is not something that just popped up out of nowhere, right? You’re one of our great historians. Let’s begin at the beginning, and I understand you’ve been working on 15th century ideas, so give us a sense of what the roots of this are for our country.
GERALD HORNE: I’m doing a book on the 1500s.
MARC STEINER: 1500s. [crosstalk]
GERALD HORNE: 16th century and it helps to shed light on how Spain lost its first movers’ advantage. After all, they commissioned Columbus, they established footholds in Santo Domingo, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and even St. Augustine, Florida. By 1565, despite all of this talk about 1619 being the date when Africans arrived, the Spanish had brought Africans from their perch in Santo Domingo to St. Augustine, Florida, where they had settled as early as 1565 and in fact had brought Africans to what is now South Carolina as early as the 1520s, but the Africans rebelled and joined the Indigenous side and wounded the Spanish severely, which created an opening for the English to arrive, which was one of the reasons we’re sitting here speaking—
MARC STEINER: English and not Spanish.
GERALD HORNE: … English today. In terms of the English triumphing over the Spanish, they unleashed a tidal wave of propaganda against the Spanish. It reminds me of the propaganda and unleashed against Japan before 1945, portraying them as evil, devious, sneaky, diabolical, bloodthirsty, et cetera. As well, this helps to set up this in the context of this religious conflict, Protestant London versus Catholic Spain. I don’t think you can begin to understand the kind of violence that’s been unleashed against people of Mexican origin without understanding this religious background and the settler colonial background.
In any case, the Spanish, really privileged religion. They would send priests to the docks at St. Augustine to make sure that settlers were religiously correct, for example. The scrappy underdogs, the English, in order to outflank the Spanish, they moved— I would say rather cynically and wisely— to a Pan-European project. Welcoming settlers of, as they said in London, pure European descent, which broadened the base for settler colonialism, created a larger population base for London to challenge Madrid as well, and then that wins the day.
MARC STEINER: This is a conscious policy, right?
GERALD HORNE: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s events impelling a policy I would say.
MARC STEINER: Okay. Right, right. All right.
GERALD HORNE: Then of course, if you look at Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, who becomes squatters in north Mexico, although they say that they were invited in the 1820s. What happens is that in the 1820s, coincidentally enough, Mexico moves towards abolishing slavery. Austin and Houston were major slave owners as well as the other so-called Anglo settlers. This leads to the secession from Mexico in 1836, the setting up the so-called Republic of Texas, which becomes a major slave trading power. That brings it into further conflict with Mexico, which had moved oppressively towards abolition of slavery under a president of African descent 180 years before Barack Obama. I’m speaking of Vincent Guerrero, the 1820s.
Then independent Texas could not take the pressure from abolitionist Britain and revolutionary Haiti, so they crawl into the Union in 1845 where they’ve been ever since, but that’s not the end of conflict. In fact, some of the bloodiest conflict directed, bloodiest attacks directed at people of Mexican origin comes in about a hundred years ago during their Mexican Revolutionary period, 1910 to 1920. The kind of bloodshed you saw in El Paso just a few days ago, during that decade, that was a regular occurrence not only on the part of so-called Anglo settlers directing the attack, but the Texas Rangers would not be an exaggeration to suggest they’re kind of stormtroopers for the state of Texas.
Therefore, when this screed was issued by the alleged perpetrator of this massacre in El Paso, I was not surprised at all given this historical background, and I certainly was not surprised as well that he made this reference to so-called great replacement, which also comes up in Charlottesville in August 2017. This idea amongst some who are defined as white that not only are they being replaced by people of color, but it’s part of a so-called Jewish conspiracy as well who are portrayed as the masterminds. This theory has also taken root in New Zealand. Recall what happened in Christchurch some months ago. In many ways it comes out of France where there’s a similar amount of hysteria.
MARC STEINER: Renaud Camus and that whole school of thinking, right?
GERALD HORNE: Exactly. This is taking place in the context, I’m afraid to say, of another epical event, which is the rise of China, which may be the leading economy on planet earth sooner rather than later. By some measures, it already is. That’ll have cultural, geopolitical impact as well. And so, in some ways as they like to say in the United States, we’re facing a perfect storm when it comes to the struggle against white supremacy. That is to say, the rise of white supremacy. Then this raises the question of what to do about it.
On a more positive note given I’ve been issuing pessimistic notes up to this point, one of the things I was heartened by is the fact that the government of Mexico City says that it may have to intervene to protect its nationals because about one-third of the people massacred in El Paso were Mexican citizens. Not to mention, a disproportionate number of people of Mexican origin in this 22nd largest city in the United States with an 80% Latino, Latinx population. That’s good news because hopefully they’ll take it not only into Mexican courts, but into the Organization of American States, in Washington, DC and then they’ll get support from the Caribbean nations who are pressing their own claims for reparations.
Likewise, with regard to the negative rhetoric of the 45th US President, when he said, “Send them back,” in reference to the progressive Congresswomen, one of the more heartening aspects of that is the attack on him by Chancellor Merkel of Germany. I say that because if you look at the history of struggle against white supremacy in the United States, historically, in order to be successful, we needed a global movement. It wasn’t enough just to organize within the four corners of the United States of America. That’s the import of the anti-slavery movement. Reference my previous comment about abolitionist Britain and revolutionary Haiti. That’s the import of the struggle against Jim Crow accelerating in the 1950s when Washington is under siege by the socialist camp and trying to win hearts and minds in developing countries as independent Africa is surging to independence and wanting to appeal to independent Africa. Therefore, this puts pressure on Washington to do the right thing, at least move away from the more egregious aspects of Jim Crow. In a nutshell, that’s my analysis.
MARC STEINER: I’m going to take some of what you just said and figure out where we are in terms of our history and what this teaches us for this moment. As I said earlier to you before we went on the air together, that I’ve been working a lot around the end of Reconstruction in 1877, when we see Rutherford B. Hayes becoming President of United States. The Klan is already in emotion, and they’ve been terrorizing people in the South, and especially in the South.
You had these moderate Republicans and the redemptionist Democrats pushing him in. A minority of the vote he wins and it sets up 90 years of abject terror against the black community in the South. It takes hold. So, “Make America Great Again.” The question I have is, how does that moment also in its international complexity that you refer to, how does that moment speak to us now? I often think we’re in some ways facing a similar time where everything people fought for, whether it’s Reconstruction or the Civil Rights Movement and movements that place in the ’60s and ’70s, it could be pushed back in very serious ways. I mean, did that historical knowledge hold water, and if it does, what does it mean for us?
GERALD HORNE: Well, you happen to be talking about a person who wrote a book about 1776 called The Counterrevolution of 1776, which is the launching pad for my historical thesis: The counterrevolution has been a constant thread throughout the body of US history. And not only in 1776, but 1836 when Texas secedes from Mexico in order to perpetuate slavery; 1861 the Confederate states secede in order for Dixie to perpetuate slavery forevermore.
Part of the contradiction with Reconstruction that historians are only beginning to grapple with now is that at the same time that the Union government, the government in Washington, DC was moving forward on Reconstruction, in some ways they were trying to ride two horses going in different directions at the same time because there were also moving aggressively to take land from Native Americans. Recall that 1876-1877 is also the time of George Custer, for example. That is to say, trying to massacre these what we refer to, at least in the non-Indigenous community as Plains Indians, and their battle royales between the blue coats, the US government forces, oftentimes including Buffalo soldiers, I’m afraid. That is to say, Negro soldiers and Native Americans fighting for their land.
This is a major contradiction. It’s difficult to move in a regressive direction and a progressive direction simultaneously, particularly in a country where the major theme has been counterrevolution. To that extent, looking backwards, you can almost say that Reconstruction was almost doomed to run aground. What I hope today is that we don’t make the same mistake, that we don’t try to disengage, say for example, foreign policy from the debate about domestic policy. In that light, I’m somewhat concerned about some of the Democratic Party aspirants to replace Trump because they rarely discuss foreign policy. At the debates, foreign policy rarely and barely comes up.
MARC STEINER: And the connections you’re talking about never come up.
GERALD HORNE: Oh, please. Now you’re going too far. Of course not. As I said, if we’re really going to prevail, we really have to take advantage of these global currents, reference what I just said about the government of Mexico City is doing, et cetera. I think part of the problem with regard to Reconstruction was once again, despite the fact that slavery’s abolition had been propelled in no small measure by abolitionist Britain and revolutionary Haiti, by the time of Reconstruction, you have the spectacle of Maryland’s own Frederick Douglass working with the US administration to annex a good deal of the island of Hispaniola that includes Haiti. Then, dispatching a goodly number of the Negro population there. Once again, trying to go in two directions at the same time is doomed to failure.
MARC STEINER: Fast forward to where we are now – both in terms of strategy, the strategic look at it in terms of where we are, and what those moments tell you about who we are as a people and what our politics are. What does that leave us? I know part of the huge thesis in your work is this counterrevolution you just mentioned. You can look at 1946 to the early ’70s as a revolutionary period that made massive changes in this country and the counterrevolution that’s taking place. It’s sort of taking place in late ’60s, early ’70s. It’s galvanized and it’s in power at the moment in the executive branch. What is our history and say to us about what our strategies could be, should be, and what we might be facing?
GERALD HORNE: I would make a point domestically that I think all progressive people can agree on unfortunately, which is that if you look at the history of the anti-Jim Crow movement, it could not have made as much progress as it did without the support of unions. Martin Luther King’s movement was funded in no small measure by District 65, now of the United Auto Workers in New York City. Not to mention UAW itself headquartered in Michigan.
If you look at movements on the left, for example, the petition at the United Nations, 1950-1951 charging United States with genocide against black people led by Paul Robeson. A lot of that funding came from the West Coast Longshoreman who of course played a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid movement shutting down docs from Seattle to San Diego, making sure that apartheid merchandise was not delivered in the United States of America.
The role of unions is critical and essential, and I think all of us can agree on that. If we don’t have buy-in from unions, I’m afraid to say that the outlook is rather pessimistic. Then secondly, what I’ve been saying all along, which is the internationalism of filing petitions at the Organization of American States, at the United Nations, at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Sending delegations to Brussels, Brasilia Victoria, China, Russia, et cetera.
Right now if you look at the Trump base, 63 million strong. The latest polls I’ve seen, that even though he’s now being accused of being a racist and accused of having blood on his hands in light of this invasion rhetoric that helped to propel El Paso, his base does not seem to be crumbling at all. In fact, I think if you were to do a cold-blooded analysis, which is rarely done in this country, you might come to the conclusion that in some ways the base to the right of the leaders. I think oftentimes some of my friends on the left, they act like if you get rid of Fox News, people will stop being right-wing in this country.
MARC STEINER: Right, right.
GERALD HORNE: I wish it were that simple. And so, that also underscores the uphill climb that we have in terms of beating back what could only be called a neo-fascist wave, because it reminds me of the 1930s when you had the New Deal under FDR. Then those to their left, say the Communist Party, they were called New Dealers in a hurry. Now I think today, you have the neo-fascists who are moving step by step, packing the courts, shredding the safety net, cutting taxes on the wealthy. Then you have the fascists in a hurry such as the ones going to El Paso and start massacring people. This is something that I’m afraid we’re going to have to come to grips with.
MARC STEINER: Let’s talk about, before we have to conclude, what coming to grips –what that means? I too sometimes when I think about this and interview and write about this and work on these things, can let myself fall into pessimism. That we’re in trouble here. When you just said, and what you said, 63 million Americans backing Trump— that’s the majority of white people in this country we’re talking about politically backing Donald Trump.
GERALD HORNE: The right-wing has won the white vote steadily for the last half century. That’s before Fox News, by the way.
MARC STEINER: Way before Fox News.
GERALD HORNE: Right.
MARC STEINER: The only thing that I remember ever putting a blunt in that in my own work in the ’60s was down to earth, hard work of organizing in poor white communities that made alliances with black communities and Native communities and Latino communities, like in Chicago and other places with Young Patriots. But these are small examples of things that have happened, or Fannie Lou Hamer taking former Klansmen and putting them into her co-op work in Mississippi. Those things worked and they really were, but that had to do with this common struggle. The unions had a role in that as well, but we don’t have that now. None of that. Then, you have mostly liberal, moderate Democrats, moderate Democrats and these very conservative right-wing Republicans, which is the world we’re caught in. Are there strategies from the past that speak to us about what we need to think about doing to confront all of this?
GERALD HORNE: Well, we faced a similar dilemma in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s when Ronald Wilson Reagan vetoed the Conference of Anti-apartheid Act during his reign from 1980 to 1988 and spoke very sympathetically about neo-fascism and apartheid in South Africa, in Pretoria. Of course we relied very heavily on unions. We had relied very heavily on students. We relied very heavily on the black community to push back against this pro-apartheid policy. Ultimately we prevailed because Congress overturned his veto and the Anti-Apartheid Act was enacted, which was a huge leap forward in terms of bringing the first democratic elections to South Africa by 1994.
It seems to me that in addition to understandably and justifiably this concern about the elections of 2020, we also need to be concerned about the mass movements that oftentimes propelled the candidates, particularly those who see themselves as being the anti-Trump coalition. That would once again include unions, students, and the black community, and I would now say the Latinx community because there’s a lot of energy right now in the Latinx community in light of El Paso, understandably and justifiably. The positive aspect amongst many of this community are the organic connections to Latin America, particular to the government of Mexico City under Lopez Obrador who’s been walking softly with regard to a confrontation with Mr. Trump, which I wholly and fully understand. But this latest outrage might be the prelude to opening more doors in Mexico City, which would be a game changer.
MARC STEINER: Well, this is fascinating just because I think the perspective of history you’re bringing it here, especially the international aspects of history, the international aspects of the struggle for human rights and the struggle to end slavery and segregation is something we don’t think about it, nor do we put together with a struggle here in this country and how these things are interconnected. Unless we do it in very narrow ideological ways, it’s not really seen as how impactful it was on the world we’re in.
Before you have to run, just on a closing note, you look at the movements we have in this country from the young congressional representatives and young people elected all over this country, new voices in city councils and state legislators. You see a kind of a bubbling up of a new union movement from the very bottom that’s taking place. Sometimes I’m not sure how powerful it is, but I’m watching it grow and the resistance in the black community, the resistance in the Native community. You can let yourself become pessimistic that all is lost, but there is a movement growing in this country that has a different vision of who we are as a people and as a nation. Do you have any sense of what that future might be? I know you’re not prescient. None of us are prescient, you know? But, I mean—Because they do, they’re the ones where we hold the hope that something’s going to happen.
GERALD HORNE: Well, part of the good news, ironically enough, is the reinvisioning of the past. And I see this in particular in the people in Native American Studies who are becoming much more vigorous in protesting what they correctly refer to as settler colonialism. A term that is largely absent from conversations and discourses even on the US left. If you’re not invoking the term of settler colonialism, you cannot begin to understand how we’ve reached the precipice of disaster, which is we’re just where we’re now standing.
Like yourself, I too am not pessimistic in light of these movements. I’m particularly heartened by the rise of the Climate Change Movement, the Sunrise Movement in particular because I think what it portends is a kind of mass action. That is to say, disruptive mass action, which you also had in terms of felling— F-E-L-L-I-N-G— both Jim Crow and apartheid. For example, in my book on Southern Africa, I talk about how you had aerial freedom rides. That is to say, that anti-apartheid activists, they flew planes into illegally-occupied Namibia, southwest Africa, then under illegal South African occupation. They refused to get visas and dropped leaflets, almost crashed, but it was that kind of novel strategy and tactic that ultimately won the day. When I see the Sunrise Movement, I envision activists in the mold and the mode of the aerial freedom riders.
MARC STEINER: That’s really just fascinating. Gerald Horne, I wish we had more and more time. We don’t, but glad you were in Baltimore. Glad we’re doing this face to face. Thank you so much for your work and your thoughts. I look forward to doing this much more.
GERALD HORNE: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Hope you enjoyed this. Let us know what you think. Keep on watching. Take care.