Back on January 25th, when I was confined to one finger on my IPhone, I promised to write about Jacqueline Jones' new book, A Dreadful Deceit, when I returned home and could type with both of my forefingers. The time has come to fulfill that promise.
Jacqueline Jones is one of the most distinguished and accomplished scholars now writing American History. Intellectual disciplines go through moments of extraordinary accomplishment separated by long deserts of mediocrity. I have many times observed that Philosophy, far and away the oldest of the disciplines, has had stretches of five hundred years or more when nothing much seems to be happening, interrupted by eruptions of sheer brilliance. Think of fifth and fourth century B. C. Athens, twelfth and thirteenth century Europe and North Africa, Seventeenth and Eighteenth century Great Britain and France and Prussia. The same seems to be true for the younger disciplines. Sociology, now mired in the tedium of opinion surveys and statistical manipulations, was, somewhat more than a century ago, the most exciting of the Social Sciences, with Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Mannheim and many others transforming our understanding of the social realm. There have been moments [not now, I think] when Literary Criticism sparkled. Economics has flourished, especially when Karl Marx was alive. Even Political Science, which is not really a discipline at all, has had its moments. This seems to be American History's time. The depth, richness, complexity, and sophistication of the work now being done by the best American Historians, especially on the story of African-Americans, is worlds better than what is being written by philosophers, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and literary critics these days. And in this moment of its flourishing, Jackie Jones is one of the very best. Two of her previous books, American Work and Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, are among the best things ever written about America.
The subtitle of A Dreadful Deceit is "The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America." Jones presents her book as the detailed stories of six individuals, ranging in historical time and place from seventeenth century colonial Maryland to 1970s Detroit, but these stories are a device for organizing a sweeping survey of the entire history of race in America. It is, contrary to superficial appearances, a book with a strong driving thesis that informs Jones' selection of the stories and of the vast amount of historical detail of time and place that she weaves around those stories. The thesis is nicely summarized exactly halfway through the book:
"The notion of racial differences between blacks and whites would provide a guiding principle for postwar [i.e., post Civil War] political relations and create a social superstructure to replace the legal institution of slavery. Southern yeoman farmers could ignore the material similarities between themselves and freedpeople and embrace a notion of whiteness that guaranteed them considerable privileges and legal rights, without altering their lowly class status. Politicians could appeal to their impoverished white neighbors and exalt solidarity among white men, all the while exploiting the labor of tenants, sharecroppers, and field hands regardless of color. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) the widespread acceptance of the notion of race, that notion did not necessarily lend itself to proof -- or to rational discussion for that matter" [p. 151]
The seventeenth century colonialists who sought to make their fortunes on land granted to them by the English King needed labor to transform the virgin forests into fields on which they could grow cash crops for the home market [tobacco, rice, later cotton.] Their first solution was to bring the labor with them in the form of indentured English workers, but though they continued to use these workers for almost two centuries, they posed certain problems. The indentured workers were English subjects and hence had legal protections that the courts set up in the New World were bound to observe.
The colonists tried to use the labor of the indigenous peoples, but this also posed problems. These "Indians" were often members of powerful nations ["tribes"] with whom the colonists entered into political and military alliances, and to whom they could appeal for protection when their "masters" sought to exploit them. One of the many fascinating elements in the early chapters of Jones' book is her detailed account of the political negotiations and shifting alliances between the colonists and the various indigenous nations. These relationships were really no different in motivation from those into which European nations entered with one another in their endless jockeying for power and material advantage.
The men and women captured, or sold into bondage, in West Africa and brought to Virginia and Maryland also belonged to nations, some them powerful, but those nations were too far away to offer protection, and so the Africans could be exploited and subdued to bondage more easily.
Race played virtually no role in all of this. As Jones says early in her first chapter, "Local political economies and labor demands shaped by military imperatives -- not racial prejudices -- account for the origins of slavery in the colonies." [p. 7] So long as slavery was legal, the slave owners had no need to justify their treatment of their slaves, any more than they had a need of an elaborate ideological rationalization for their treatment of their livestock, their horses, or, for that matter, their tables and chairs. But with the defeat of the South in the Civil War and the end of slavery, a situation emerged that was anomalous and required justification. "[W]hites -- surrounded by a group of people toiling at ill-paid tasks, the men deprived of the right to vote and the women limited to domestic service -- devised a racial ideology from a harsh reality, an ideology that justified the immiseration of black men, women, and children, all in the name of racial difference. [p. 135]
The implications of this central insight, which Jones pursues through four centuries in the pages of her book, are profound, and of the very greatest importance for our understanding of contemporary politics. The subordinated position of African-Americans, and now of Hispanic Americans, was inflicted upon them and exists today not because of the subjective, private, irrational prejudices of White Americans, but because it has served the economic interests of the rich while placating exploited Whites, whose disadvantaged status is made more or less palatable to them by the knowledge that their condition is at least superior to that of their black and brown neighbors. So long as that subordinated economic position remains essentially untouched, not even the ascension to the White House of one of their own will address the roots of what today we call "racism."
It would be foolhardy of me to attempt to summarize Jones' book, for its real strength lies in the rich detail with which she fortifies and elaborates its central thesis. This is not a quick read. Indeed, it took me more than a month to read the entire book, even though it is only 301 pages long. But it is a book of the very greatest importance, and I recommend it to you most strongly.