If Only They Understood

8 Mar

I’d been meaning to write a post for a few days now with the title “Why Do You Care” to address something probably everyone has observed: that tendency when there’s some controversy followed (on Twitter) by a series of hashtags, re-tweets, and a general click economy Lester Spence brilliantly outlines at the beginning of his post on Adolph Reed’s essay in Harper’s, Nothing Left.” The short version of what I planned to write is that what is at stake is a claim to social relevance, and a larger contest over the domain of the popular, and what “our” priorities ought to be. Defining the important issues of the present, fighting to maintain in view that which we care for is one way we define a “we,” and one way we conceive a future. The latest album (or the latest insult) is frequently an occasion to name the tradition or legacy from which it comes, and the values one wants to see continue. No doubt a familiar claim.

So this is a short postscript to a post I didn’t write. I came across an article by Edward E. Baptist and Louis Hyman, “American Finance Grew on the Backs of Slaves,” which sketches the ways slavers mortgaged their slaves, then turned those mortgages into bonds. Two points stood out to me. Quoting them:

1. As slave-backed mortgages became paper bonds, everybody profited — except, obviously, enslaved African Americans whose forced labor repaid owners’ mortgages.


2. But though slavery ended in 1865, in the years after the Civil War, black entrepreneurs would find themselves excluded from a financial system originally built on their bodies. As we remind our students in our new online course American Capitalism: A History, African-Americans — unable to borrow either to buy property or start businesses — lived in a capitalist economy that allowed them to work, but not to benefit.

This isn’t entirely new information, but it’s significant, especially for the ways the authors link that history to the present. (Baptist has a book forthcoming on “Slavery and the making of American Capitalism,” and Lyman has published on debt. The book also connects arguments Ian Baucom makes in Specters of the Atlantic about the relationship of finance capital, insurance and slavery, and that Saidiya Hartman makes in Scenes of Subjection about the ways freedom for the emancipated slaves was figured as a kind of debt: emancipation,she writes, was “both a breach with slavery and reproduction or reorganization of the plantation system.”

I mention these–the first two that occurred to me–just to say that the conversation has been going on for a while, but it’s a conversation about slavery, which is one of those things certain to be met with “why are you/they talking about that.” To the extent that that’s true, the obverse of that statement is “if only they understood,” with the assumption being that if “they” understood “they” would be part of my “we.” So, it’s related to the question I began with.

But why do we assume “they”–anti-black racists and other conservatives (not using that term as it maps onto U.S. political categories)–don’t “understand”? In other words, when people praise films like 12 Years a Slave for raising awareness and promoting understanding, what does that understanding do? When people protest that they want their country back, is that not evidence that they recognize all too well, articulately or not, the ways wealth has been created and maintained not just in this country, but the world over, through transactions between whites over the bodies of blacks?

In short, reducing matters to a question of understanding–the supposed “ignorance” of, say the Tea Party or whichever person has said the latest outrageous thing about people of color, or women, or sexual minorities–we miss part of the work of politics, which for me has to be not only what do they want, but how is it that their message can be successful. “We” know that poor people in strongly Republican states are voting against “their” interests, but in saying so we aren’t curious enough about what interests they understand themselves to have. Actually hearing how people identify their interests and their understanding of the world can be boring, and even terrifying. But conservatives have been very good at listening to those anxieties and desires and articulating them with capitalist programs and the whole neoliberal agenda of diminished rights, redefining citizenship in terms of consumption (i.e., concern over the fates of “my tax dollars”), a diminished role of the state (including the dismantling of the welfare state), and notions of freedom and citizenship that continue to be defined in opposition to slavery. At the very least, the political classes do understand the past, and they want to be sure the present and future are defined in those terms.

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