Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Debunking Black (and White) Conservatives’ Strange and Sick Obsession with the 'Slave Mentality'
During the Age of Obama, the primary purpose of black conservatives is to provide a shield and proxy for the racism of the Republican Party.
In that role, black conservatives such as Alan Keyes, Allen West, Jesse Peterson, Herman Cain, Benjamin Carson, Armstrong Williams, Niger Innis, and their ideological kin are enlisted to advance the agenda of the White Right.
They are human props, marionettes, and ventriloquist dummies for white conservatives that provide fuel for the naked bigotry of throwback racist caricatures like Cliven Bundy whose meditations on “The Negro” publicly surfaced several weeks ago.
Black conservatives also serve as human chaff and cover for the more “evolved” white supremacy of Paul Ryan and his concerns about “dysfunctional” “inner city” black people and their “bad culture”.
In all, black conservatives are expert performers in a type of political blackface routine that involves disparaging African-Americans in ways which would bring howls of condemnation if done so by a white person.
Like the gay or lesbian who is a professional homophobe, or a woman who is an anti-feminist, the black or brown person who publicly (and disingenuously) criticizes other people of color is viewed as some type of a noble truth-teller by many Americans.
Black conservative Angela McGlowan played that role perfectly during a recent appearance on Fox News, where like an automaton programmed with anti-black racism and self-hate, she claimed that “so we do have a problem with slavery today, as Lincoln did back in the day”.
Lincoln’s “slavery problem” was the involuntary servitude of millions of black people in the Southern United States.
Consequently, for McGlowan, poor people, i.e. black Americans, have a “slave mentality” and were “ruined” by President Johnson’s Great Society, welfare, and other federal programs that made them a “dependent” class.
Alas, there is something very tragic and surreal when a black person summons Lee Atwater’s racist Southern Strategy on national television.
By implication, the black community was better off during chattel slavery than following their emancipation. This is a bizarre and stunning suggestion—one that is neither new nor novel. It is also internally inconsistent (according to conservatives “black people” and “the black family” were clearly “better off” during slavery; however, slavery also made black people “lazy” and “dependent” on the government and this learned behavior continues centuries later in the present?)
These are typical Right-wing talking points in the Age of Obama. They are also ahistorical claims that collapse under a minimal amount of critical scrutiny.
Like so much of what masquerades as “political analysis” among the Right-wing media, Angela McGlowan’s argument is piss poor and facile; for the white conservatives who watch Fox News, her anti-black screeds resonate because they are white racism parroted by an African-American.
Nevertheless, the phrase “slave mentality” is potent: it is linguistic dynamite. If we were to “cut heads” like dueling jazz musicians in a jam session, or engaging in the verbal dart throwing and one-upmanship that often occurs in black barbershops, there are few counters to the charge that black people have “failed” in America because they have a “slave mentality”. It hangs in the atmosphere of American public discourse, unmoored and unchallenged, with qualifications or context neither provided nor demanded.
As such, the claim that blacks have a “slave mentality” is taken to be a commonsense type of foundational truth: it does not require proof or evidence. Like most matters of faith, it simply is.
Language does political work. It is also a claim on the truth and an effort to describe empirical reality. When conservatives use the phrase “slave mentality”, such language should be reconciled against the facts of the historical record, i.e. what is known and understood about the lived experiences of black bondsmen and bondswomen across the Black Atlantic during four centuries of human bondage?
McGlowan’s claim that black Americans have a “slave mentality” is built upon a highly simplistic and inaccurate understanding of history.
Slavery was a diverse system that existed across the Black Atlantic.
There was not just one experience of slavery. Instead, there were many millions of black people whose individual experiences of slavery collectively form the history (and present) of the Black Atlantic. Consequently, the idea of a “slave mentality” falls apart on its premise.
The iconic image of black slaves on an agrarian plantation dominates the West’s collective memory about that “peculiar institution” and the many millions of black bodies it consumed, quite literally, as the fuel for the creation of a racist, consumerist, capitalist, colonial and imperial empire.
Black human property worked as shipwrights, miners, merchants, blacksmiths, musicians, carpenters, pottery makers, and other types of artisans and skilled labor.
The experience of a semi-free bondsmen working in a small shop in Atlanta who sends home most of his wages to a white master living elsewhere is tied together with that of a slave suffering under the lash and other tortures, as he or she is worked to death harvesting sugar cane in Florida or the Caribbean, because they are both “owned” by another, suffer under interpersonal tyranny, and are in a perpetual state of war with the impositions put on their liberty and dignity by white society.
The use of the phrase “slave mentality” by the White Right and its black conservative enablers is prefaced on a belief that black people were happy, lazy, not civically minded, and content as human chattel.
This is a lie that is perforated and made flaccid by asking basic questions.
When black conservatives such as Angela McGlowan talk about a “slave mentality” among the black community is she including slave rebellions led by men such as Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, Gabriel Prossner, Touissant Louverture, Charles Deslondes, Zumbi, and others who took up arms and fought for their freedom against white society?
Does a slave mentality include the many acts of day-to-day resistance such as poisonings, setting fires, breaking farm equipment, or destroying crops that were commonplace across the South and elsewhere?
White slave owners were so terrified of slave uprisings that in many areas it was mandated that whites must bring guns with them to church on Sunday (the day when a rebellion was most expected) and all able bodied white men serve on the slave patrol.
What of how slaves fought a guerrilla war against white slave patrollers, killed overseers, pushed back for basic human rights against their masters, and carved out their own spaces for community and dignity? Does this count as a “slave mentality”?
Black slaves coveted literacy, sought out ways to learn how to read and write under threat of torture and death, maintained a vibrant cultural and spiritual life, and internalized a spirit of liberty, freedom, and democracy, as they then used said energy to fuel their own liberation struggles. Is a yearning for freedom, human dignity, and forcing American democracy to live up to its full potential and creed, a “slave mentality”?
African-Americans self-manumitted, running away by the many, many thousands, participated in the Abolitionist movement, and then put on Union blue as they fought in the Civil War to tear down the Southern Slaveocracy and to liberate their own people. African-Americans made Emancipation a reality and moved it from rhetoric and political gamesmanship to a de facto state of affairs across the South.
During Reconstruction, black Americans, many of them former slaves, became Congressman and Senators on both the state and federal level where they helped to put in place some of the most forward thinking and progressive policies in American history. Here a “slave mentality” is one of civic responsibility, martial spirit, and a belief in the transformative power of democracy, freedom, and individual rights.
Conservatives use the language of “slavery” and a “slave mentality” as a way to slur Black Americans. In reality, a “slave mentality” consisted of resistance and struggle in the face of daunting white supremacy and racial tyranny.
The White Right and black conservatives use the language of a "slave mentality" to advance a neoliberal Austerity agenda which views the majority of Americans as “the takers” while “hard working” white people are “the makers”. The phrase “slave mentality” is a way of mobilizing white racial resentment against people of color, blacks in particular, in order to advance economic and social policies that hurt the poor, the working class, and the middle class across the colorline.
In that imaginary, there is a parallel question which is rarely if ever asked about the relationship between a paranoid and greedy “1 percent” and the American people. If black people are supposedly possessed by a “slave mentality” that makes them lazy, irresponsible, and stupid, is there such a thing as a “white slave owner mentality”? Does this “white slave owner mentality” continue to impact white Americans in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
White slave owners were paranoid and fearful that the wealth which they had amassed from exploiting and abusing others would be taken away from them. White slave owners also thought of themselves as a master class and master race that was destined to rule, and in some cases, divinely inspired in their power over black people.
The majority of white Southerners did not own slaves. However, they identified with the white slave owning class and aspired to be part of that elite group. White supremacy also paid the poor, working class, and aspiring white “middle class” in America a psychological wage, where Whiteness elevated them over all black people—regardless of the superior accomplishments, achievements, character, education, and intelligence of a given black person.
Historically, in the United States and the West, Whiteness was and remains a fundamental type of social, political, and economic privilege. Blackness was, and in many ways, remains a fundamental social, political, and economic liability.
The Republican Party in the post civil rights era has embraced the old Confederacy: this includes the language of “secession” and “nullification”, as well as symbols like the Confederate flag--what should more accurately be described as “the American Swastika”.
Research in political science suggests that there remains a strong relationship between those geographic regions which had the highest percentage of black slaves, their support for Republican candidates, as well as hostility to African-Americans.
Republican voters are extremely aspirational (read: delusional)—where despite the evidence on diminished social mobility, increasing income inequality, and the destruction of the American middle class—they continue to support policies that benefit the very richest Americans to their own detriment. And just like the former planter class, some of the very richest Americans are extremely paranoid, believing that they are “oppressed”, or are going to suffer some type of pogrom or persecution at the hands of the unwashed and jealous masses.
And while the language of a “slave mentality” is used against black Americans to stereotype them as a group of social and economic leeches on White America, it is in fact white people who are the largest recipients, both in absolute and per capita dollars, of federal aid.
Moreover, the Red State America, the heart of the old Confederacy, is extremely dependent on federal “handouts” and other supports. The “submerged state”—government contracts, mortgage and tax credits, and other monies—heavily subsidizes the white middle and upper classes in ways that are both invisible and taken for granted by its recipients.
Could it be that Americans have some type of “slave mentality”, as both “slave owners” and “slaves”, and it is white folks who are its biggest beneficiaries?
When black and white conservatives say that African-Americans have a “slave mentality” they are conjuring racist fictions of happy slaves, living on the wonderful plantation, eating watermelon all day, playing banjos, and supporting a kind and beneficent master. In reality, the plantation was a charnel house of rape, murder, torture, and exploitation. Such facts are inconvenient for a white washed view of history and the Right-wing’s post-fact news and political universe.
The suggestion that black Americans have a “slave mentality” is a way of connecting race and class. In the United States, discussions about class and poverty are almost invariably claims about personal morality.
Ronald Reagan’s images of the black “welfare queen” or “strapping young black buck” buying steaks with food stamps legitimates a belief that African-Americans are also moral failures who created their own predicament. Thus, the black and brown poor are made responsible for their own circumstances.
The newest version of this racist “dog whistle” fantasy is the Right-wing media’s effort to suggest that poor people in America are spoiled and live easy lives because they have refrigerators and access to cheap home electronic devices.
When Black conservatives condemn African-Americans as being sick with a “slave mentality” they are suggesting that the black community is a unique and special group of layabouts, drunk on the public dole, libidinous and hyper-sexual, unproductive, and who want to live off of white people’s resources.
In many ways, this is an act of psychological projection. The chattering class, talking head, black conservative has one of the easiest jobs in post civil rights era America. There is a whole apparatus that includes think tanks, the Right-wing media, and a niche lecture circuit, which rewards black conservatives for committing rhetorical violence against people of color in the service of white racism.
All they must do to earn those checks is to hungrily suckle at the teat of white supremacy and be a slave to its desires.