Thursday, April 10, 2008

Progressivism, Allies, and Privilege

In light of the outcry in response to Amanda Marcotte's apparent appropriation of the ideas and words of another blogger, brownfemipower (who has suspended her blog, which is why there's no link), in a recent article, I thought I would take a few moments to reflect on studying history with an eye toward exposing the progressive legacy of privilege.

Of course, the insidious nature of privilege often makes it invisible to the privileged. That's why people who consider themselves progressives to be purposeful about reflecting not only on their own privilege, but also on the history of progressivism and its not-so-nice sides.

I think it's fair to think of modern progressivism as getting its start in the mid-19th century with social movements such as abolitionism and the first women's rights movement. While abolition is often held up as a sterling example of progressive change, there are several problems with the story as it is generally told:
  • The Garrison-Stowe-Lincoln Narrative: Here's how this one generally goes: In the 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator, which introduced the country to the idea that slavery is bad. Then, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, which made everybody cry and realize that slavery was really bad. Next, we fought the Civil War and Lincoln freed the slaves.
    • Problems: This narrative drastically underplays the role that enslaved people played in their own emancipation. Men and women in chains did not need Garrison to tell them that slavery was wrong, and, when the Civil War broke out, they did not wait for Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children sought the protection of the Union armies (which often failed to offer any protection at all - even selling some slaves back to the South early in the war). The mass movement of self-emancipation, as much as any other factor, forced the Federal Government to approve legal emancipation. Black men then fought to uphold the gains they had made. By the end of the war, about 180,000 African-Americans had served in the US army. Their struggle to gain respect and fair treatment is well known.
  • Abolitionists as Benevolent Christians: The abolition movement we remember best is the evangelical movement that talked a lot about the evils of breaking up slave families, and the wickedness of unChristian slaveowners. In this telling, elite, white Northerners agreed that Jesus wanted the slaves to go free and it was their duty to fight for the right of every man to be a husband, every woman to be a genteel mother, and every child to grow up a Christian. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, Quakers, etc.
    • Problems: The evangelical abolition movement was only one strand of abolitionism. See Eric Foner's book, Politics and Ideology in the Era of the Civil War to learn about the labor movement's abolitionism, which advanced an argument about how industrialists and slaveowners were allied in an effort to consolidate a permanent, hereditary, exploited laboring class composed of both black slaves and white wage-slaves. This ideology was somewhat Jeffersonian, in that it conceived of every man as an independent citizen and imagined wage labor as a temporary step toward land ownership. Instead of addressing the concerns of white labor leaders, the Republican party made slavery the ultimate enemy and silenced Northern laborers' critique of the symbiotic relationship of slavery/industrial capitalist machine. Also, the evangelical abolitionists didn't want racial equality, (neither did the labor movement).
  • Modern Scholars and W.E.B. DuBois: For a loooong time, historians had no problem with the U.B. Phillips version of the Civil War. Recently, pretty much all academic historians have accepted the narrative of black self-liberation and the war as a labor struggle. Which means that they're about 70 years slower than W.E.B. DuBois, who came up with that argument in Black Reconstruction in 1935. (btw, shoutout to Prof. Susan O'Donovan on most of this stuff - I hope she'll forgive the paraphrasing in light of the fact that I was actually listening.)
It's not just abolitionism that has a legacy of upholding privilege. The Women's Suffrage movement campaigned pretty hard on the "I can't believe that black men can vote and I can't" angle. The temperance movement was explicitly anti-immigrant. Hell, even the introduction of secret ballots over party tickets introduced a literacy requirement for voting since you couldn't just pick the Republican ticket anymore - you had to actually be able to read the names (and there were laws against asking for help). Education reform almost always finds a way to hurt kids who aren't white and middle-class.

All of this is just to say that "progressive" movements have a long history of pursuing that progress at the expense of the people of color and other workers. Just because someone is a liberal doesn't make him a saint or place her outside of this nasty web of embedded racism. I identify as a liberal and hope I can be an ally, but I say and do privileged, racist things all the time. I hope that continuing to study this history with an eye toward social justice, even when it means that liberal heroes aren't quite as marble statue-y, continues to enable me to reflect on my own biases and privilege.

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