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What It Would Take to End Racism and War

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Thank you. If you still raised your hand, please understand that my point is that some people will not, that it depends how we define our terms.

I want to argue that it's possible to favor ending all racism but not realize all the places racism exists, and that it's possible to oppose ending all war by failing to recognize alternatives to war. I also want to argue that, while racism or war could be ended while leaving the other in place, the two are so closely interlocked that one without the other would look very different from how it looks today.

I drove up here from where I live in Charlottesville, a town lately overrun by Nazis and other racists from around the country come to defend a giant heroic statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse that stands in the middle of town, as well as a similar one nearby of Stonewall Jackson. Those statues are now covered with giant black tarps but remain standing.

Raise your hand if you know why they remain standing.

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It's not because of a public vote. It's not because their defenders own more guns than their opponents. It's not because Charlottesville City Council wants them there. Those fine people have voted to take the statues down and sell them. So, why are they still standing there, albeit covered with giant garbage bags of shame?

Some of you have heard but many of you may not have, because the reason they are still there is something thoughtlessly accepted by all parties. It has nothing to do with the case being made by the Nazis or the KKK, and nothing to do with the case being made by Black Lives Matter or any of the opponents of the statues. When something is universally accepted, it isn't much talked about. Most of the world's nations are just now putting together a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. How much debate have you heard on that in the U.S. Congress? Or go back to the war that Lee and Jackson fought in. The North and the South had a disagreement over slavery, but not primarily over slavery in existing territories. It was largely because all sides universally assumed without question that the United States had to be an expanding empire, that a disagreement over how to ban or allow slavery in new territories was disastrously developed into an escapade of mass killing and destruction.

Now, because I said that, I have no choice but to speak briefly about the U.S. Civil War before returning to the statues that were put up 60 years after the Civil War in the cause of racism and against the wishes of at least some of the then-dead people depicted in the statues. Attaching a just and urgent cause like ending slavery to a war, as Lincoln really did mid-war, when killing and dying for the Union had worn thin, doesn't actually make a war just. Slavery was ended more effectively without war--through compensated emancipation, for example--in the colonies of Britain, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands, and in most of South America and the Caribbean. That model also worked in Washington, D.C. And of course the Northern U.S. states had ended slavery without war.

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On June 20, 2013, the Atlantic Magazine published an article called "No, Lincoln Could Not Have 'Bought the Slaves'." Why not? Well, the slave owners didn't want to sell. That's perfectly true. They didn't, not at all. But The Atlantic focuses on another argument, namely that it would have just been too expensive, costing as much as $3 billion (in 1860s money). Yet, if you read closely--it's easy to miss it--the author admits that the war cost more than twice that amount. So, the cost of freeing everyone enslaved in the South was not unaffordable, especially when compared to the cost of the Civil War. If--radically contrary to actual history--U.S. enslavers had opted to end slavery without war, it's hard to imagine that as a bad decision for them or for anyone concerned.

Had Congress found the decency to end slavery through legislation alone (it did pass the relevant legislation after fighting a war), perhaps the nation would have ended slavery without division. Or had the U.S. South been permitted to secede in peace, and the Fugitive Slave Law been easily repealed by the North, it seems unlikely slavery would have lasted much longer. The pressures of international morality and of industrialization were against it.

The war did not, in fact, end slavery. As documented in Douglas Blackmon's book, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, the institution of slavery in the U.S. South largely ended for as long as 20 years in some places upon completion of the U.S. Civil War. And then it was back again, in a slightly different form, widespread, controlling, publicly known and accepted--right up to World War II. No statute prohibited slavery until 1950, and the 13th Amendment permits slavery for convicts to this day. This is not to say that the emancipation at the end of the war was not a very positive step, only that it did not end all slavery, and some of the slavery that persisted was actually worse than what had gone before.

Five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government took legal actions to end slavery, to counter possible criticism from Germany or Japan. Five years after World War II, a group of former Nazis, some of whom had used slave labor in caves in Germany, were invited to set up shop in Alabama to work on creating new weapons technologies. They found the people of Alabama extremely forgiving of their past deeds. This team of rocket scientists would later become the core of NASA.

Of course a nonviolent movement was needed to end Jim Crow.

Had the United States ended slavery without the war and without division, it would have avoided the bitter post-war resentment that has yet to die down. Ending racism would likely have been a very lengthy process, regardless. But that process might have been given a head start rather than an enormous hurdle.

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My point is not so much that our ancestors could have made a different choice (they were nowhere near doing so, the North could not have done so without the South, et cetera), but that their choice looks foolish as one to emulate in the future, knowing what we know of the costs and risks of war, and knowing what we now know about the tools of nonviolence. If tomorrow we were to wake up and discover a large majority of the populace appropriately outraged over the horror of mass incarceration, would it help to find some large fields in which to kill each other off in large numbers, after which we would pass legislation? Or would it make more sense to skip right ahead to passing the legislation?

Now back to those miseducational statues.

The reason the statues are still there in Charlottesville is that a state law in Virginia bans taking down any war memorials, and courts have yet to rule on whether that law applies retroactively to memorials put up before the law was passed. And no movement has developed to overturn that law. Nobody's even talking about it. We do not, by the way, have a law banning the removal of peace monuments. It would also be pretty hard to find a peace monument to take down if you wanted to.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)

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