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Actually, I think I Do Understand American Conservatism!

Actually, I think I Do Understand American Conservatism!

I’ve recently enjoyed a significant increase in the number of followers and readers of my work thanks to the Facebook “boost” tool (thanks to all of you who have connected!). This has introduced me to a variety of new “fans” who have variously questioned my politics, sanity, motivations, writing ability, and overall level of education. While they have unwittingly provided me seeds for several future articles, the academic in me was compelled to defend my body of knowledge first. So I thought it important to address what seemed to be the most common theme/question asked amongst responses from my last article “Dear Conservative,”… “What do you know about conservatives anyway?” (Expletives removed)

American conservatism is a unique political ideology. Like American liberalism, its roots can be traced back to 18th and 19th century European political philosophy. And like most things Americans borrow, it has been transformed in ways that make it incomparable to conservatism in other countries, or its classical form for that matter. The result from a domestic perspective is a growing list of paradoxes within the conservative Republican political platform that seem hypocritical to outsiders, and a repudiation of traditional conservative values to a growing number within the GOP itself. In order to fully understand these contradictions, we must examine their origins, contemporary meanings, and future implications.

Edmund Burke, 1729–1797

Edmund Burke is widely recognized as the father of traditional conservatism. An 18th-century Irish political philosopher, his writings have been used across the political spectrum to establish assumptions and arguments supporting conservative politics in America. His most important assertions would become the foundation of traditional conservatism in America with the first principle being that all order and morality originates from God and is expressed through divine rulers. Second, this relationship naturally flows from rulers, through nobility, to subjects and is the foundation of the nation-state as evidenced by the existence of traditions and laws. Third, radical or rapid social and economic change represent the greatest threat to the stability of those relationships and the overall order of society.

With these basic principles in mind we can then characterize traditional or Burkian conservatism as being elitist, risk-averse, and reactive when it comes to engaging national politics. It is elitist in the sense that although morality and righteousness are the foundations of liberty and thus politics, Burke’s clear assumption was that only those who can perceive and act on natural law derived from a Christian God can act with good intentions. More directly, it was only the noble or ‘well-bred citizen’ that could competently participate in politics. Traditional conservatism is risk-averse because the primary goal is to maintain stability and order within society, avoiding revolution of any kind. As a result, traditional conservatism has often been most energetic at those moments in when there seemed to be the greatest threat of societal upheaval (e.g. the 1950’s and 60’s). Specifically, traditional conservatism is a reactive political ideology, seeking to maintain the status quo and limit the most destructive aspects of inevitable social growth and change.

For many conservatives, Trump’s calls to “Make America Great Again” immediately bring up memories of the 1950s…

For a long-time, whether residing in the Democratic or Republican party, American conservatism was traditional in most respects. We traded business moguls for nobility and legacies for lineage, but up until at least the 1960s American conservatism could still be considered the politics of elites. It was most symbolized by an aversion to risk, especially when it came to economic and foreign policy. Latent American traditions such as isolationism and protectionism for instance were always more prevalent under conservative administrations. The reactive nature of traditional conservatism could be seen most at those times when there proved to be the greatest push for change in US society. From Reconstruction and Woodrow Wilson’s call to join the League of Nations, through dissatisfaction with Roosevelt’s New Deal and the rise of the Silent Majority, American conservatism acquires the greatest momentum when it is reacting to major progressive or liberal movements.

Something changed in the 1960’s however. First and foremost, American conservatism began to evolve from an elite political perspective to the politics of the blue-collar worker. The process began with the conservative push back against the Vietnam War protests and desegregation. Specifically, loyalty to a ‘natural God-given social order’ gave way to loyalty to country and tradition in the form of patriotic defense of ‘the Old Order’. This alteration of a key principle of conservatism made it attractive to Americans far beyond its elitist white Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins. It broadened how conservatives conceptualized the traditions they were protecting allowing large groups of middle- and lower-class individuals to define for themselves exactly what conservative traditions they felt represented them. It also helped develop a strengthening allegiance to the new home of conservatism, the Republican Party.

If Burke is the father of classical conservatism, then Reagan is the father of American conservatism

The ability to continually redefine American conservatism would open the door for the rise of Ronald Reagan and the ‘Christian Right’ in the 1980s, as well as some of the more ultra-conservative positions we see today, without any significant threats to the platform of the Republican Party itself. Most importantly, the transition from elitist political ideology to blue-collar social movement is what has allowed populism to become such a prominent aspect of American conservatism today. The great irony is that it was the populist chaos and violence associated with the French Revolution that ultimately led Burke to harden his own conservative principles.

The second key change to American conservatism that took place during the 1960s was the general conclusion that it was the minority that was most often the cause of rapid or radical social change in America. Earlier in American history this tended to be focused almost exclusively on the position of the African-American in society. By the 1960s however women, veterans, the disabled, and other marginalized groups were beginning to make significant claims for rights that they expected the government to fulfill and protect. Thus, while traditional conservatism saw threats to the status quo in a variety of different social and economic areas, American conservatism began to adopt an increasing focus on slowing the advancement of minority rights within American politics.

Activist Phyllis Schlafly campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977. Library of Congress

It is important to say that I do not think American conservatism is inherently racist. It is more appropriate to say that American racism is one part of a broader conservative reaction to the impact of “the other” on a society that they have come to define according to certain traditions. Much to the chagrin of contemporary conservatives their philosophy continues to be attached to the legacy of racism and sexism in American. This is because historically discrimination was the most widely used tool through which rapid social change was avoided.

But American conservatism in both its Democratic and Republican forms can also be seen in various periods of nativist reaction towards immigration, as well as chauvinist responses to women’s rights. The key conclusion is that contrary to traditional conservatism, conservatives in America today actually encourage wide-ranging and rapid socioeconomic advancement. By narrowing the causes of unwanted social progress to “the other” and excluding traditional sources such as economic and class conflict, American conservatism was again able to re-conceptualize a traditional principle. It could now promote social and economic progress in the society without fear of individuals outside the system getting enough power to change the status quo.

The last change has been the slowest to take root, but clearly manifested itself in the election of Trump. Rather than being reactive to a slow and methodical liberal evolution of American society, conservatives have now become proactive in their approaches to American politics. Instead of waiting for the development of liberal or progressive policies that they feel push them too far, American conservatives have adopted the tactic of drawing a political line in the sand to deter liberals from even beginning the fight. This means that it is the conservatives and not the liberals that choose the primary issues of contention (e.g. gun control).

Perhaps the most direct illustration of this new approach is an unwillingness to let perceived liberal victories stand. Where traditional conservatism sought to resist where it could and accept what it had to, American conservatism now sees the reversal of social change as a political goal. From abortion and Obamacare to environmental regulation and free trade, the current conservative agenda is one of refusing to accept changes that have already been made. The goal is no longer just to slow the inevitable tide of socioeconomic change as much as possible. Rather American conservatism has adopted the unique perspective that social change can be stopped and even reversed with enough political power. And the election and subsequent policy initiatives of the Trump administration are proving them correct.

Conclusion

The result of America’s transformation of conservatism is Trump populism. an unapologetic, uncompromising, and aggressive political philosophy that seeks to return the United States to a time of ‘traditional’ family values, unquestioned patriotism, and a common understanding that no one should get special treatment. There is a small but vocal group of traditional Republicans that worry about the increasing disconnect between core conservative values and the promotion of Trump populism. But for the majority, they are still able to fit their own definition of conservatism into the broader philosophy in order to continue support for Trump and the Party. They are still able to clearly see a personal vision of the ‘“good ol’ days” when special interests didn’t exist, you were paid a dollar for a dollar’s work, and most Americans shared the same American dream. The problem for the Republican Party and American conservatism right now is that those good ol’ days are for many Americans also associated with racism, sexism, and economic corruption… as is our current president.

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Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

America’s One Big Decision: Do We Want to Lead the World or Not?

America’s One Big Decision: Do We Want to Lead the World or Not?

At home, America is confronting a variety of critical choices. Border security, healthcare, Social Security, infrastructure, and continued economic growth are just some of the areas where the country is facing decisions that could affect our future for generations to come. Many of them revolve around the age-old political dilemma of ‘how to pay for unlimited wants with limited means’ and the budgetary battles that result. But there are also deeper tensions between how Americans define themselves, each other, and our future as a nation that will need to be solved moving forward.

Internationally the country is also beset by a variety of key decisions and threatening dilemmas. After 17 years we continue to fight the War on Terror with no apparent end in sight. The framework of America’s previously rational foreign-policy has been warped to the point that outside observers and Americans themselves no longer fully understand who our allies and adversaries are. Global environmentalism is in retreat, inequality continues to grow, and despite decades of efforts we appear no closer to truly stopping nuclear proliferation.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Many of us are overwhelmed by the weight of these domestic and international decisions. Not only are they complex, some with the potential for mistakes that could lead to war, they are also demanding of our immediate attention. The reality however is that we cannot begin to engage either the threats or the opportunities in America’s future without answering the key question we have avoided answering since the end of the Cold War: “Do we want to lead the world or not?

The Rise and Fall of American Leadership

For most of human history the concept of international leadership has been defined simply as ‘whoever is most powerful makes the rules’. For thousands of years the powerful made rules that benefited themselves to the detriment of everyone else. From ancient civilizations and the age of empires, through colonialism, imperialism, and culminating with fascism, international leadership was exploitation of the weak by the powerful.

The American-led victory in World War II changed everything. For the first time the most dominant country in the world established a system that promised to benefit the many instead of the few. We promoted ourselves as the champions of democracy, international law, human rights, and international peace. We spent billions of dollars and cooperated with every country in the world to build a structure of cooperative organizations with the United Nations at its center, all with the hope of creating frameworks of international peace and progress that were not dictated solely by the whims of the most powerful state in the world. Thousands of Americans made the ultimate sacrifice as the country fought throughout the four decades of the Cold War to protect what at times seemed to be a fragile system of international leadership. To be sure, America made numerous mistakes as all leaders do. But the more important thing was that America was attempting to lead the world to the greatest benefit of all, and not just ourselves.

US victory in the Cold War erased many of the poor decisions and mistakes that had been made along the way. Some of the darker legacies like the Vietnam War would continue to stain America’s conscience, but for most of the issues that had plagued America during the Cold War victory was a matter of the end justifying the means. Leading the defeat of fascism in World War II followed so closely by victory against Soviet communism and totalitarianism cemented our position as the “shining beacon on the hill.” Most importantly, this was a perspective that was embraced by a large majority of the global community.

Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate famously asking the Russians to, “Tear down this wall!”; June 12, 1987

At the beginning of the 1990’s the country was the unquestioned leader of the world, even more so than it had been at the end of World War II. There was a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to the principles that had guided US foreign-policy throughout the Cold War. Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton promoted policy actions through the multilateralism of the United Nations symbolizing the country’s commitment to the spread of democracy, international law, and human rights. We worked to strengthen the foundations of the international economic system while at the same time embracing pro-environmental perspectives in global agreements and treaties.

The country’s embrace of globalism was mirrored by a search for the “peace dividend” here at home. Discussions and debates centered on the idea that now that the Cold War was over the country could focus on improving things domestically. Whether it was more money going to ‘butter vs. guns’, or the chance to set new national priorities after the defeat of the Soviets, most believed that any embrace of international leadership would be mirrored by improvements at home. And thus, from both domestic and international perspectives the great decisions and dilemmas confronting Americans at the end of the Cold War centered on exactly how we should enjoy the fruits of our victory. But before we could answer them 9/11 happened and once again everything changed.

The greatest test of leadership is being confronted by decisions that pit the needs of those you are leading against your own self-interest. 9/11 and the War on Terror that it started was just such a test for the United States. The terrorist attacks against America caused three great realizations that have collectively led the country to slowly dismantle the foundations of its own foreign-policy and global leadership.

First, we immediately concluded that they hate us, with they broadly defined as anyone who was not willing to help us fight international terrorism as we defined it. Second, the liberal principles (e.g. respect for democracy, human rights, and international law) that guided America through its victories against fascism and communism were now less practical in the fight against Al Qaeda. Third, through real events and false narratives many Americans began to develop the opinion that the international community neither appreciated nor deserved America’s leadership.

The result is that we now find ourselves practicing an ad hoc mixture of foreign policy perspectives including isolationism, neutrality, and primacy. And we are shifting through these approaches without clear guiding principles, established processes, or policy goals. Our allies are confused and concerned over whether we can be trusted to support them and the more general principles of international peace and progress they helped us create. Our adversaries are emboldened by America’s mixed signals and inconsistency in foreign-policy. At home we are more divided than we have ever been as the growth of economic inequality, cultural division, and political extremism elevate our differences above our shared identity as Americans. Questions regarding the national debt, the viability of the American healthcare system, and the future of the current administration are looming on the horizon promising still more questions in need of answers.

Before America can begin to address these dilemmas, we must answer the fundamental question of, “Do we want to lead the world?” It is through this one critical decision that so many others will be made by default, in large part due to how the decision will affect America’s use of its resources. If we choose to lead the world than we must begin with a clear understanding of the costs and responsibilities associated with the decision. If we choose not to lead it must be with a clean conscience and full acceptance of the domestic and global consequences of the choice. Neither option is easy to pick or implement, and both come with benefits and drawbacks for America and the international community. But what we cannot do is continue to operate in the gray zone between these two options. To do so guarantees maximizing the costs of both policies for American taxpayers and citizens while denying the most important benefits of either option.

Option #1: America the Leader

We do not have to imagine the benefits of American global leadership as they have been on display since the end of World War II. America’s promotion of democracy, international law, and human rights helped create a framework for international relations that eliminated colonialism and fascism. It’s promotion of free trade and global prosperity through the founding of organizations such as the WTO and the IMF have created unprecedented levels of economic growth around the world. It is true that America has not always fully adhered to its own principles, nor has it always engaged the ethical foundations of international behavior enshrined in the treaties and agreements it has signed. But despite these mistakes the United States has led the creation of an international system that benefits Americans and the international community far more than it hurts them.

Americans are also aware of the costs of global leadership. The financial burdens of maintaining the largest military in the world is well-documented. The United States are members of every major international organization world, and home to most of the nonprofit organizations operating internationally. The result is a consistent requirement to become involved in foreign affairs great and small often contrary to America’s own interests or desires. America’s decisions, actions, and domestic squabbles are constantly under an international microscope leading to an endless stream of derision and criticism from friend and foe alike.

  • The United States MUST reinvigorate and empower the United Nations as a primary tool of US foreign-policy. As the architect of the organization America’s current apathy towards the UN has caused significant harm to its reputation and operations over the last two decades. Reform of the UN should be comprehensive and include more equitable representation on the Security Council, an overhaul of financial and bureaucratic systems, and a strengthening of the organization’s peacekeeping and peace building capabilities. Most importantly, reform must be done with an understanding of the United States as a leader, enabler, and full participant in the organization’s missions and goals.
  • The United States needs to recommit to the fundamental principles of promoting democracy, free trade, and protecting human rights as the foundation of global peace and prosperity. From a practical perspective this means repairing and strengthening relationships with traditional allies while more vigorously seeking to confront pariah and rogue states around the world. We must move away from the unilateral use of sanctions and military force that has come to typify the US prosecution of the War on Terror and return to multilateral cooperation as the foundation of US foreign-policy. Doing so creates burden sharing across military, financial, and political components of US foreign-policy actions that significantly reduces the overall weight of leadership.
  • The United States must be more willing to share or even cede control of multilateral initiatives. If it does not directly threaten or harm the United States, we must be more willing to elevate the needs of the international community over our own short-term benefits. This is especially true in the areas of global environmentalism, human rights, and international law. The United States must be a leader in the promotion of clean energy, the protection of human rights especially for refugees, and the application and enforcement of international law.
One of the Blackhawk helicopters lost during the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia Intervention, 1993
  • Finally, the country is going to need to critically review the structure and use of its military relative to a more engaged form of US leadership. The great paradox that has developed is that while the American military has continued to grow and evolve in size and power the country’s willingness to use it has decreased. Partly because of the expanded reliance on technology such as drones, and partly because of a ‘post-Black Hawk Down’ aversion to casualties associated with international interventions, the United States has become increasingly resistant to putting boots on the ground to support foreign-policy initiatives. If the United States is to reinvigorate its global leadership, it must be with the solemn recognition that it will require a consistent commitment and potential sacrifice on the part of our military.

One advantage to choosing this option is that we’ve already done it. The relationships and understandings essential for real global leadership by the United States still exist and, in many cases, require only a clarification of America’s commitments. Even more importantly the frameworks of laws and norms necessary for broad acceptance of US leadership are still in place with the same basic principles and processes that existed when we created them. Finally, most of the international community wants American leadership. Most of the negativity and criticism the country receives today is not the result of misdeeds or mistakes that we’ve made. It is the grumblings of a group who are wondering why their leader is not leading.

Option #2: America the Isolated

America also has experience with disengaging from international relations. For the first 150 years of the country’s existence we practiced a policy of isolationism driven partly by opportunity and partly by need. Most countries in the world could not choose an isolationist perspective even if they wanted to because of their proximity to other nations. America was given the unique opportunity to do so because of the distance between North America and the other major powers in Europe and Asia. The need to be isolationist developed out of relative weakness. Up until World War II the United States did not rank amongst the most powerful countries in the world. Economically, militarily, and politically America was defined by its unrealized potential, and both us and the rest of the world were content in the country isolating itself as a result.

Isolation and disengagement from international relations does have some advantages for the United States. One of the most recent developments that makes this a viable option for US foreign-policy is America’s ability to be autarkic, to fully support itself. There are no essential or critical resources that the United States is forced to import leading to binding relationships with other countries. The country produces surpluses in energy and food, suffers no issues with access to clean water, and has enough territory to accommodate population growth for generations to come. America’s economy continues to be the largest and most robust in the world led by corporations which dominate every major industrial and technology market around the globe. It is unquestioned that the United States benefits enormously from its relationships with other countries and markets. But none of the relationships today represent vital American interests in the same way the US relationship with OPEC in the 1970s did for instance.

It was Ronald Reagan, the father of contemporary American conservatism, who made the argument for the “shining city on the hill”. The vision however has been replaced by one of America as a ‘castle on the mountain’, isolated and defensive towards a global community it can’t completely trust. Between the legacy of 9/11, America’s historical culture of isolationism, and the country’s increasing self-sufficiency, the second narrative has become increasingly more attractive to many Americans.

There are some who question the fundamental principles driving America’s globalist foreign-policy. Others have concerns about policies and goals in issue areas like climate change and economics. But they all share the opinion that the rest of the world takes American leadership for granted, or even worse exploits us for their own interests. The retreat from leadership began decades ago and has been enabled by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Whether by design or coincidence, America’s foreign policy has steadily moved away from the idea of international leadership… and most Americans have in one way or another supported this move.

There are benefits to increased American withdrawal from international politics. First and foremost, leadership creates exposure and it would be fair to say that America has grown tired of the criticisms (justified and otherwise) it has received. No longer being the global leader would give America the opportunity to reduce the economic costs of foreign-policy in several areas. The concepts of foreign and military aid could be restructured (and reduced) to focus solely on recipients who are directly benefiting our national interests.

An isolationist position could be used to justify reductions in immigrant and refugee intakes, expenditures on social and humanitarian development projects, and the overall financial and political support of international organizations. In addition to potential political and economic benefits the exposure of US citizens to violence and crime would also theoretically be reduced through more restricted border entry. The key for this choice however is a recognition of some of the repercussions that would follow.

  • If the United States is not going to operate as the world’s policeman, then we do not need a large police force. If the United States does not wish to lead the international system through interventions and other uses of military force than we must consider a reorganization and reduction of our military expenditures. The potential economic benefits of transforming the US military to a predominantly “homeland defense force” could be enormous. Reductions in basing and deployment costs, combined with improvements in unmanned “defend at a distance” capabilities (e.g. missile defense systems, satellite-based early warning and attack systems, etc.) could open unimagined opportunities for domestic investment.
  • Fully engaging an isolationist perspective would justify further reduction of commitments in regions we already treat as marginal interests. One of the simplest ways to deal with complex decisions is to remove yourself from the situation where the decision must be made. There are a variety of areas from economic development and environmental conservation Africa, to political stability and social equality and Latin America, where the United States has been only marginally threatened by trends and events. At the same time the country is consistently hindered by both domestic and international sources and whatever efforts it does put forth.
  • The US will need to use a clear set of guidelines in reviewing and potentially ending its membership to international organizations. The most significant source of frustration for US foreign-policy is the web of regional and international memberships in must maintain as the leader of the international community. In many cases the responsibilities represent a net drain on US resources relative to the advantages membership in your organization have given the country. This the much-publicized relationship between the United States and the United Nations human rights Council leading to our withdrawal from the organization is just one example of how these organizations may impede the overall promotion of US foreign-policy.

There are certainly repercussions to consider with the choice of isolationism. We would need to accept the further decline in importance of the United Nations and its associated systems including the WTO, World Bank, and IMF. We should expect the creation of alternative organizations and systems by countries such as Russia and China as they attempt to create their own leadership structures. Most importantly, we should expect reversals of programs and initiatives associated with these organizations including nuclear nonproliferation, global management of issues like water pollution and fisheries management, and an overall reduction to the respect for international law and human rights.

But from a classical realist perspective there are certainly benefits for America should we choose not to lead. They are narrower than those associated with leadership, but no less important to the American psyche. In an American culture increasingly influenced by individuals who simply want to be left alone to live their lives, the elevation of that perspective to the level of US foreign-policy is logical. The attractiveness of no longer leading the international community rest mainly in eliminating the responsibilities associated with leadership. For many this is just as attractive an option today as it was 100 years ago with the result being American leadership is no longer a given, it’s just an option.

Conclusion

It is time for America to choose. It is time for America to recapture the mantle of leadership or retire from the position altogether. The last two years of increasingly chaotic and irrational US foreign-policy are just the culmination of problems and indecision that has harmed American leadership since 9/11. The election of 2020 will represent a crossroads for domestic political culture in America as we choose to further build on Trump’s presidency or reverse engines and repudiate it.

Courtesy Brookings Institute

The argument offered here is that the election is even more important for the international community and America’s leadership of it. If we decide not to embrace the leadership role that we ourselves created, then we must be ready for someone else to try and fill that role. If we do reinvigorate American global leadership that must be with a focus on a peaceful and stable future rather than short-term economic and political gains. And if we continue to make no choice at all then it is assured that someone else will make the choice for us.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

Jussie Smollett and the Rush to Believe

Jussie Smollett and the Rush to Believe

Smollett in his first interview after the alleged attack; Good Morning America 1/13/2019

So here we are again. Someone we think represents us and our beliefs reports being the victim of a horrible and vicious attack. From the moment we hear the report we are committed to seeking justice. Our focus is not the individual crime, but our certainty that it is a symbol of what we’ve always known: THEY are out to get US. Our reaction is swift and complete. Not only will we find the perpetrators of this heinous crime, we will go after the people and culture that have enabled it.

Here’s the thing, I’m describing ALL OF US! Whether it’s racially or economically, politically or religiously, a large majority of Americans rely on some version of an “us versus them” philosophy. We are sure that the failures and struggles we face personally are in some part due to the concerted effort THEY are making to discriminate, steal, and deceive US. Every American has a very real historical record upon which we build narratives to support our philosophy, no matter how much the narrative itself may stray from the realities of history. We then wait for something to happen that seemingly confirms the narrative and we believe before we know. It is the perfect combination of groupthink and confirmation bias. And it is an inescapable part of American political culture.

Tawana Brawley with Rev. Al Sharpton, December 1987

A few days after Thanksgiving in 1987 a 15-year-old girl named Tawana Brawley was found unconscious near her home in an apartment complex in Wappinger Falls, New York. She was wrapped in a garbage bag and her clothes had been partially burned. She appeared disoriented and had racial slurs written in feces on her body. Tawana Brawley claimed that six white men including a police officer had raped and brutally assaulted her, and the country began to choose sides.

At the time I was 18-years old living a few miles north in Poughkeepsie, New York and I remember vividly the racially charged circus that was the Tawana Brawley case. The reaction from the African-American community in the area was swift and complete anger. For many Brawley’s claims fit neatly with an established narrative regarding racism and abuse in local police agencies. From the beginning the primary goal was seeking broader justice in a society that could allow something like this to happen. For those in the black community that believed without question even the idea of an investigation seemed suspicious. They wanted simply for her claims to be believed and her attackers to be brought to justice.

Brawley with Sharpton and controversial civil rights lawyer C. Vernon Mason

As the story became national news it exposed significant racial tensions throughout the country. Controversial civil rights activists like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan led marches supporting Brawley, while attacking corrupt political and law enforcement systems. In conjunction with high profile lawyers they claimed there were coverups at the highest levels of government for white police officers supposedly involved in the incident and subsequent investigation. A broad range of African-American personalities in politics and show business joined Sharpton, Farrakhan, and their lawyers in attacking what they saw as biased coverage of the case by mainstream media. The response from almost the entire African-American community was one of anger. They wanted immediate and far-reaching justice for what they were sure was yet another rule a crime by racist cops against African-Americans.

The response from the White community was initially a muted, “let’s wait to see what happens with the investigation.” The crime itself appeared horrible, of that there was no doubt. That it involved police officers, rape, and hate crimes only made it that much worse. But for many White-Americans in the area and around the country it became a battle the moment polarizing individuals like Sharpton and Farrakhan became involved. For them, no matter what might’ve happened to Tawana Brawley, anything involving the two civil rights activists was bound to be reverse racism. They were (and for many still are) to White-Americans what David Duke is to African-Americans. The result was a ground swell of support for local police, as well as politicians and other individuals being implicated in the supposed conspiracy.

Former Dutchess County prosecutor Steve Pagones after winning defamation case against Brawley; AP 2012

As it always does time passed and the spotlight began to move on to the next big story. It took a couple of weeks for Route 9 through Wappinger Falls to no longer be choked with traffic, and eventually the rallies and newspaper articles dwindled in frequency. The investigation however continued and in October of the following year the grand jury issued its report. The primary conclusions were that Tawana Brawley had fabricated the entire event. From writing the racial slurs on herself to burning her own clothes investigators found no evidence to support her claims. She had done it to avoid being potentially beaten by her parents for staying away from home for three days. Her supporters quietly moved on from their betrayal, her detractors righteously proclaimed, “I told you so”, and everyone waited for the next thing to happen.

Two years later I was living in Revere, Massachusetts, a small suburb just north of Logan Airport in Boston. After work one night in October 1989 my roommate and I, along with several waiters and waitresses from the restaurant I tended bar at on Newberry Street, were hanging out at a coworkers house in Roxbury. I remember because after several minutes of the sound of police sirens passing, we all filed out into the street to see what was going on, but to no avail.

Front page of the Boston Herald, Tuesday, October 24, 1989.

The next morning, we found out that Charles Stuart and his seven-month pregnant wife Carol had apparently been shot during a carjacking. His wife who had been shot in the head died instantly, and the baby which was delivered two months premature passed away a few weeks later. Charles Stuart would be in the hospital for over a month with severe gunshot injuries to his abdomen that required multiple operations. In the meantime, Boston and the nation were captivated with the manhunt for the perpetrator of this horrible crime who Stuart described as a, “6’ tall black man… wearing a black sweatsuit with red stripes.”

For those who may not know Boston has some of the deepest racial tension of any northeastern city. Throughout November and into December 1989 the city’s racial issues were on full display for the country to see. For many white Bostonians, and white-Americans in general, the heinous crime was yet more proof of an out-of-control criminal element in black communities. Aggressive policing and investigation tactics, calls for reinstatement of the death penalty, and counter protests and demonstrations by the African-American community seemed to transform 1990’s Boston into a southern city during 1950’s segregation. The importance of the case quickly rose above the crime itself to symbolize what both sides saw as one more battle in the war between “us and them”.

Wrongly accused Willie Bennett being arraigned in District Court for the murder of Carol DiMaiti Stuart and her child; Boston Globe 1989.

In late December the police announced they had arrested a suspect, Willie Bennett. Not only did Bennett fit the description he had initially given police, Stuart had been able to identify him in a lineup making it an open and shut case. Then on January 3, 1990 Charles Stuart suddenly committed suicide by driving to the Tobin Bridge and jumping off into the Mystic River 250 feet below. At the same time Stuart’s brother was at a local precinct revealing to police that the entire crime had been committed by Stuart and himself as part of an elaborate insurance scheme. Stuart shot his own wife in the head and then had his brother shoot him in the stomach. His brother then took the couple’s valuables to support the carjacking story, threw the gun off a nearby bridge, and they both watched Boston and in the nation become consumed in its own racial animosity. His supporters quietly moved on from their betrayal, his detractors righteously proclaimed, “I told you so”, and everyone waited for the next thing to happen.

Conclusion

We all do it. We all jump to conclusions seeking to claim vindication as our righteous reward before the ball ever comes to rest on the roulette wheel. As Americans we are programmed to believe ourselves before others as part of our expression of personal liberty. But many of us are not fully equipped to defend those beliefs. As a result, we are constantly on the lookout for anything that confirms them. More importantly, we await the next confirmation with the same excitement and anticipation as someone about to get duped by fake lottery cards. We don’t use the time in between these events to test our own beliefs, affirming them only after an honest look at things without the glare of the media spotlight. Instead we put our beliefs in a glass box to rest undisturbed until the next time THEY show their true colors.

And so it is with Jussie Smollett. There were many who were quick to rally to the flag decrying what they’d always known to be the racist and homophobic tendencies of Trump supporters. And as is always the case the battle was joined not over the crime itself, but what it represented for America as a whole. Once again, THEY (in this instance conservative Trump supporters) found themselves in the odd position of defending the symbol being attacked without defending the crime. And then suddenly everything flips 180° when it appears the entire incident was manufactured by Smollett himself. Supporters and flag wavers now meekly try to transform the narrative in order to continue the broader belief in widespread racism and homophobia amongst Trump supporters.

Simultaneously, the conservative right basks in their ability to stand on soapboxes proudly exclaiming “I told you so!” Smollett’s alleged behaviors allow them to make direct connections to “the Brawley hoax” symbolizing further confirmation of what they’ve been saying all along: the left manufactures racism and violence on the right and then promotes it through the mainstream media which they control. The recent revelations, as they always end up doing, simultaneously damaged and undermined one side’s narrative while seemingly confirming the other’s perspective. The only difference in each case is which side is seen as having won or lost.

In the end WE are all being duped, taken for a ride, played for fools. In almost every case like this the individual is motivated by self-interest, not some broader attempt to motivate the cause of either side. Stuart and his brother wanted money and Brawley didn’t want to be punished by her parents. Susan Smith killed her own children in 1994 to clear the way for a new relationship claiming they were murdered by black carjackers. The result was days of intense racial tension across the country before the truth came out. Last year the Air Force Academy was slammed for an apparent racist incident involving African-American cadets having racial slurs written on their doors only to find out it was an African-American cadet who was responsible. In all these cases individual Americans took advantage of our national tendency to use groupthink and confirmation bias as the shield and sword of our politics. They used our need to confirm our own narratives and created evidence they knew we’d rush to believe. And people like them will continue to do this to America if we continue to rely on our individual beliefs to the exclusion of the realities of the world around us.

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Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

Why America Can Never Win the War on Terror

US Soldier, Afghanistan 2013

America is in the 18th year of the War on Terror. After Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 we created a ‘coalition of the willing’ determined to defeat terrorism itself. The United States had already been fighting Al Qaeda and its new brand of international terrorism since 1988 when Osama bin Laden founded the group. With their attacks on American embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole in 1998 Al Qaeda had established itself as the biggest threat to US security. And with the attacks on 9/11 it became the symbol of terrorism and religious extremism in the new digital age, a threat not just the United States but the entire world.

Like the Vietnam War, the War on Terror had more than a decade of smoldering conflict and involvement before the real horrors of war began. Like the Vietnam War, the War on Terror has seen the United States become mired in endless combat where we seem to win every battle but are no closer to winning the war. And just like the Vietnam War, the United States must accept the fact that we have never and will never defeat enemies motivated by ideological rather than material interests.

The first reason why the United States is unable to completely defeat ISIS and Al Qaeda is because terrorist organizations are non-state actors. They are not tied to a territory, do not develop extensive and vulnerable lines of supply, and do not include large groups of civilians that must be protected. At the same time the ability of these organizations to attack unpredictably has expanded tenfold since the 1970s due to increased access to recruiting and information through the internet. Add to this the ease of movement and financing in a global society, as well as a constantly increasing availability of advanced weapons on black markets, and the contemporary terrorist organization has become just as resistant to American military might as the Vietcong were.

But the thing that makes groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda the proverbial immovable object to America’s irresistible force is their motivating ideology. America was unable to defeat the Vietcong because they created an ideological combination of ‘freedom from oppression’ and ‘political extremism’ that continually motivated new recruits regardless of losses. Without the ability to engage in a total war against North Vietnam and its allies China and Russia, the United States was doomed to fight against a constantly renewing enemy that would never give up. The only difference between the Vietcong and the Islamic State in this instance is ISIS has elevated its target from the reunification of North and South Vietnam to the reorganization of the international system. The result however is the same for the United States: an enemy whose motivating psychology and material capabilities ensure a conflict where neither them or us will ever be truly defeated.

But in fact, the uniqueness of modern terrorist ideologies goes even further. Whether it is the organization’s structure and principles, or its stated goals of reestablishing a global caliphate, ISIS’ reliance on pre-modern ideological perspectives make it an enigma for the modern world. The Islamic State is fighting a war of annihilation utilizing the same ideologies that fueled the Crusades. Anyone not adhering to their radical and propagandized interpretations of Muslim philosophies and history is an enemy to be annihilated. It is a motivating ideology that with some changes to the narrative was used by civilizations throughout history including Nazi Germany.

Christian Crusaders Surrendering to the Muslims, 1187

What is important to understand for the War on Terror is that it is an ideology with no room for compromise or negotiation. It’s simplicity and radical components have always appealed to the most violent fringe elements of society as it provides a sense of righteousness to those who feel that they are being oppressed and must fight back. As a result, the Islamic State will always be able to draw new recruits in the same way that neo-Nazism has been able to exist and evolve despite the defeat of Hitler’s Germany almost 65 years ago.

There are very real signs that the United States is beginning to grow weary of the War on Terror in much the same way as the country sought exit from Vietnam in the early 1970s. Present Trump has very recently tried to withdraw the United States from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan with the claim that ISIS has been all but defeated. This in many ways is the predictable evolution of an increasing reluctance to commit US force, especially in the form of soldiers and vulnerable personal, that began with the Obama administration. The US War on Terror has centered on an unspoken strategy of containment for close to a decade. As long as there are no major attacks on US personnel or interests outside of the Middle East and Africa, the US will only engage international terrorism from a distance.

A Yemeni boy walks by mural depicting a U.S. drone strike on Dec 13, 2013 in Sanaa (Photo: AFP/Getty)

If the primary goal of the War on Terror was to eliminate the ability of terrorist organizations to threaten the United States directly than we won the war years ago. But the United States military, intelligence community, and the international system as a whole, have all been reshaped to focus almost exclusively on international terrorism, religious extremism, and the groups that rely on both. We have fallen into the same feedback loop that caused the United States to stagger from operation to operation in the mid-1960s and early 1970s desperately seeking a way to defeat the endless enemy in Vietnam.

The quagmire in South Vietnam has been replaced by our 18-year deployment in Afghanistan. The questionable expansion of the Vietnamese conflict to Cambodia and Laos is mirrored by US involvement in Yemen and Syria. And unfortunately, parts of Africa today seem just as vulnerable to the contagions of conflict driven by radical ideology as they were in the Vietnam era. The United States must continue to lead the fight against the scourge of extremist violence and international terrorism. But we must do so with a new understanding of our enemy and our goals.

The United States needs to more critically engage the connections between underdeveloped societies and the ability of terrorist groups motivated by religious extremism to find safe havens. We need to decide whether we are truly dedicated to eliminating international terrorism as much as possible regardless of the economic and political hurdles. Or, is it in fact time to declare “Mission Accomplished” and withdraw from areas in which terrorist or extremist activity do not pose direct threats to US interests? We can recommit and strengthen our resolve to the War on Terror as an eternal struggle in much the same way as we’ve come to see the War on Drugs of the 1980s. Or we can declare some sort of victory and begin to develop strategies and alliances aimed at containing groups like the Islamic State in areas away from US interests. But what we cannot do is continue to talk in terms of the War on Terror while increasingly withdrawing and disconnecting from the most important battlefields. The result will be another 18 years of war with steadily increasing questions about who we’re fighting, why we’re fighting, and when will we win?


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

Understanding American Racism, Part II: Legacy

Understanding American Racism, Part II: Legacy

Me at age 4 with my step-father, grandfather and great-grandfather

Part I of this series offered perspectives on the history of racism in the United States. While the perspectives themselves can certainly be critiqued and disagreed with, slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement all undeniably happened and so there is a shared basis of understanding for the discussion.

A legacy is different. The events that drive legacy become less and less important as they fade into history. They are replaced by personal perspectives that are affected by, build upon, and pass forward the meaning of those events. Legacies are important because they explain the part of who we are that results from who our ancestors were. In my experiences the two most important components of America’s legacy of racism involve identity and opportunity.

As a biracial African-American male born in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, I can tell you that I’ve personally experienced the best and worst of the legacy. Most of those experiences can be summed up with my perspectives on Black and White identity, as well as the opportunities both have gained and lost as a result of racism in America. As a professor I always start my courses with the same introduction, and I think it applies here as well: “People don’t learn from those they don’t trust, and people don’t trust someone they don’t know. So, I guess if you’re going to learn from me, I should start by telling you who I am.”

Identity

In 1970 my 17-year-old black mother became pregnant by her white Italian high school boyfriend. The legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement were only a few years old and the culture of racism that had led to the protests and marches of the 1960s was still very much alive and kicking. Introducing his pregnant black girlfriend to his family was apparently more than my father was able to bear, so he left the picture before I was born never to be heard from again.

By the time I turned three my mother had married a peaceful and religious white man from an upstate New York farming community and I now had a sister. Even before I knew why it was a thing race was much more than just a ‘black-and-white’ (pun intended) issue for me. I knew my mom was black and my dad was white, but that fact had no significance or meaning for me until I started school and realized it had meaning for just about everyone else.

It was only much later that I started to think about growing up in the Corlies Manner Projects in Poughkeepsie New York with my dad being the only white man in the entire development. I started to have similar thoughts once I realized I was too often the only black student in a class or at a job. I often searched for the best (i.e. most politically expedient) answer when others asked me about what it felt like to be darker than all my white friends or lighter than all my black friends. And it was only after endless moments like that when I began to consider the legacy of racism in America.

The first and most important component of America’s legacy of racism is its effect on identities: Whites, Blacks, and America as a society. Too many Whites and Blacks in particular assume the other group is monolithic when it comes to understanding race in America. Even more directly, too many Americans make the critical mistake of believing everyone in the other group generally represents the worst of that group’s racial perspectives or stereotypes. As a result, a liberal, blue-collar, and race conscious white person becomes as much of an anomaly as a well-educated, well-off, conservative black person. Trust becomes difficult to develop simply because the few individuals that can help build it are seen by all as the exception rather than the rule.

Mia Love (R-UT), the first African-American woman elected to Congress as a Republican

These blanket assumptions regarding identity and race relations in America also affects how we see and are seen around the globe. I have taught students from around the world and have even traveled to a few foreign countries myself. Whatever Americans think the legacy of racism is, I have often been shocked by how Chinese, British, and Nigerian citizens (to name a few) view race in America. Slavery is long dead, segregation has been over for about 50 years, and the existence of systemic racism has been all but wiped out. Few know the real origins of the KKK, the Confederate flag, or neo-Nazi white supremacy movements. But all these things have left an indelible mark on how we define ourselves and each other. So, to define America’s legacy of racism we must begin with how it has defined us.

1) “White people are the problem… and the solution”

The simple truth is that the history of racism against African-Americans has been driven solely by White-Americans. The complex reality of that truth is that applying and/or accepting this sort of responsibility as an entire group is impossible. This is because the definition of the group itself encompasses a vast set of ethnicities and historical relationships to America. The most critical issue in assessing or accepting blame amongst white Americans for racism is the reality that for every white slave-owner there were dozens of white abolitionists, and for every member of the KKK there are hundreds of white civil rights activists. Racism in America has been maintained by a group white Americans who have corrupted political and legal systems in order to discriminate against African-Americans. But in every single instance of the advancement of civil rights there has been a significantly larger group of white Americans who used the same systems to advocate for change.

Everything from slavery to segregation would’ve continued much longer and most likely in even more extreme forms if not for a consistently large group of white Americans fighting against it. We must always remember African-Americans like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King as symbols of the black struggle in America from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement. But it is just as important to remember people like Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson as individuals who used their power to change America itself in recognition of that struggle.

White supremacist marcher and counter-protester; Charlottesville Virginia 2017

My personal experience with this paradox quickly leads to a key realization. While I am certain I’ve been held back at times in my life by racists, I must give credit to the white people in my life for almost every major opportunity for advancement I’ve ever had. Except for my mother, every role model in my life has been white. My stepfather’s family has done infinitely more to help me as a family than my mother’s family who all but disowned her as a child. Almost every opportunity for professional advancement, economic gain, and professional growth has come from relationships with white family, friends, professors, and employers.

Much of who I am is the result of being lucky enough to be identified as “gifted” in elementary school at a time when students were ‘tracked’ for most of their primary education. Between this and my attending Vassar College preschool on my white dentist’s recommendation, I received significant opportunities early on to advance myself. I’ve always had confidence in my own abilities and future, even if my decisions and behaviors as a young man didn’t always demonstrate that. But after 20 years in the restaurant business overlapped with more than twenty years as a professor the impact of NEVER having had a black mentor, boss, manager, department chair, or chief administrator has understandably led me to conclude that at least in my life, white people are the source of opportunity. Even in writing this series of articles with the hopes of being ‘discovered’ it only recently occurred to me that I was writing for anyone other than a white liberal audience.

So, what is being white? From a legacy standpoint it is more than just a group of people some of whose ancestors were racist. It’s more than Abraham Lincoln, David Duke, and trying to figure out how Donald Trump fits in between the two. It’s about an incredibly diverse group of individuals who have been split between the ideas of racism and equality since the country’s founding. Periodically throughout our history there has been talk of ‘race wars’ and inevitable conflicts between blacks and whites. In truth I think America’s race war has always been within white people themselves, a battle for their own identity that has shaped the history of the nation.

It was not Blacks versus Whites during the Civil War or facing each other down during Reconstruction. It was predominantly white Americans arguing on the floor of Congress during passage of the Civil Rights Act, just as it has been mostly white FBI agents combating the KKK. In each instance it was white Americans versus white Americans fighting over who they wanted to be and what that meant for the rest of the citizens in the country, most directly African-Americans.

This legacy of American racism continues to this day. The Yanks versus the Rebs has been replaced by liberal Democrats versus ‘Trump’s core supporters’. There are still white people in power who believe “there are good people on both sides” when white supremacists march and are met by Americans continuing the fight against the culture of racism. But the counter protesters are almost always white as well. The young activist who tragically lost her life during the Charlottesville violence was white, as was the white supremacist driver of the car that hit her. Whites throughout America’s history have used both racism and activism in their defining of the African-American. What’s often overlooked is that those things also came to define them as well. As a result being white in America is just as complicated as being black, just for different reasons.

#2 “African-Americans are a unique American identity”

As white colonists and immigrants from Europe came to America, they brought with them a wide variety of ethnic, cultural, and national heritages that served as their identities. Whether British, Irish, German, or Italian, these identities played an essential role in helping successive generations transition from ‘The Old World’ to the new. A practical result that continues to this day is the proud use of hyphenated identities to signify pride in where your ancestors came from, as well as your own status as an American.

The internal bonds between groups like Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, along with their more general connections to Anglo-Saxon whites who were already here, served to partially insulate them from America’s culture of racism. The ability to come together through shared language, religious expression, or common history predating the group’s arrival and integration into American culture has been essential not only for European Americans, but Asian and Latin American immigrants as well.

African-Americans are the only ethnic group whose identity was all but created after they arrived in America. This statement begins with the obvious but essential understanding that of every ethnic group in the United States today African-Americans are the only one that did not initially immigrate here of our own free will. Second, there was a determined effort to eliminate the familial ties of newly arrived slaves, as well as broader connections to their specific cultures. Throughout successive generations of slaves key aspects of identity including specific regions of origin, language, and history were erased and forgotten so that being from Congo, Senegal, Cameroon or Sudan no longer mattered.

Slaves and their children waiting to be sold… Separately

For the first 150 years the only identity that mattered was being an African slave. The most important component to understanding the impact of the eradication of pre-existing African identities was the primary reliance on oral tradition amongst African societies. For European-Americans a key component to maintaining the non-American component of their hyphenated identity is the ability to go back through the historical record to learn about who their ancestors were.

The lack of a long and detailed written historical record for African societies has made it all but impossible for African-Americans to try and recapture lost heritage in the same way. The African part of the African-American identity has been loosely defined by geographic connections and the recent advent of genetic testing services. But as a group we lack the clear heritage and cultural history that is a source of pride for so many Americans of European descent. For most Americans, white, black, or other, the African part of the African-American identity denotes color and not much more.

So, what then is the African-American identity? It is not the endless list of great men and women who built Western civilizations long before the first settlers arrived. It is not the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the coming of Jesus or Mohammed, or the building of the Great Wall. Oddly enough, it is not even the building of the Great Pyramids as long-ago North Africa was deemed to be more European than African when it comes to world history. It is not Shakespeare, Kant, Marx, or Buddha. The African-American identity did not begin with what the ancestors of Africans had done or accomplished, but with the perception of white American slaveholders who were purchasing them to work on plantations.

African slaves were a commodity, an investment, an object to be used towards an end with the expectation that eventually it would wear out and need to be replaced. The idea of giving sympathy and human decency to African slaves made about as much sense to supporters of slavery as having sympathy for a hammer. It was a perversion of “the White Man’s Burden” where the racial elitism of the philosophy was divorced from any sense of social responsibility. The “burden” became the primary focus of many in white America, for some it came to define the African-American identity itself.

So again, the question is asked, “what is the African-American identity?” From my own perspective the answer begins with acknowledging that it is not a singular identity. Just as people mistakenly believe that all white Americans are essentially the same, history and lingering stereotypes convinced many that there is a single identifiable culture amongst African-Americans. This is one of the tools of the small group of white Americans who are currently working so hard to keep the legacy of racism in America alive. They have been thwarted by increased success and advancement of African-Americans across almost every aspect of American society. Thus, it is the second component of the African-American identity, struggle, that most widely affects how both Blacks and Whites view the group.

Whether it is the white racist spewing narratives about laziness, drugs, and parenting, or the white activist who honestly strives to improve education and professional opportunities for Blacks, the concept of African-Americans as inherently struggling is implied in many white American’s understandings of our identity. Similarly, African-Americans have consistently had an internal struggle between its own socioeconomic groups over how much the concept defines being black in America. As much as African-Americans in general may feel that white America has held them back, African-Americans who “make it” without bringing along as many other African-Americans as they can are often just as vilified. This two-level issue with black identity (How do Whites define Blacks versus how do Blacks define themselves?) was perfectly captured in the recent motion picture Black Panther.

Absent a clear identity pre-existing our arrival in America, the only thing available for beginning to build the African-American identity was slavery. Regardless of whether you were a slaveholder or an abolitionist, a slave or a free black, the origins of the African-American began with struggle against unfairness, indecency, and mistreatment. The result is that African-American success is the anomaly, something to be marveled at and applauded no matter how much it may betray racism’s legacy. This is true to the point that it becomes difficult for African-Americans who succeed to keep their “blackness” unless they are artists, actors, or athletes.

It is especially true for African-Americans who pursue academic or professional paths of success which require changing how they talk or dress in order to fit into the “white professional world”. I have only met two bigots in my entire life who were brave enough to spew racist garbage to my face. I have however had numerous instances where African-Americans felt the need to inform me that I was not black enough. The legacies of racism in this country have affected how both blacks and whites define themselves. The difference is that until recently only white Americans really had the economic, social, and political power to define themselves regardless of what others thought.

Opportunities

For me the greatest impact of America’s legacy of racism has been the missed opportunities. I am convinced that right up to my last job I missed out on opportunities for reasons that included racism. Those stories may be one of the very few things that every African-American can claim to have in common. But the most tragic aspect of America’s legacy of racism is that there are very real and lingering echoes of cultural and systemic racism that we seem to have accepted as ‘just the way things are’.

Woman reacting to Trump’s election in 2016

Our current president has on several occasions touted the fact that African-American unemployment is at historically low levels under his administration. But we are not supposed to ask why it seems that as a society have accepted the idea that black unemployment will always be at least twice white unemployment? Now that most systemic racism is gone and all Americans are theoretically running the same race with the same rules, we are supposed to ignore the reality that the average white family is worth 10 times what the average black family is worth! By pointing these things out I am not calling anyone racist. I’m not even arguing that contemporary America itself is racist because of the statistics. What I am arguing is that they are two of hundreds of data points that could be used to indicate the continuing impact of the legacy of racism on African-Americans.

But to really understand the legacy we must dig even deeper. As is often the case with any analysis or argument, it’s the little things that really make the point. I think for instance the differences between opportunity and struggle as part of each group’s identity can be summed up by the continuing dominance of white families in the adoption of black children. I am happy for any child of any color who get an opportunity to succeed in life. I believe the white families who adopt black children fall into that larger group of liberal activist whites who have led the fight against American racism all along. But I also believe the enormous disparity in the ability of black families to provide (or be seen as providing) stable households for adopted children is a clear illustration of the historical impacts of the lack of economic opportunity for African-Americans.

The single greatest missed opportunity in US history to at least attempt to right race relations was World War II, and development of the G.I. Bill. I have studied and taught on this era of US history for most of my adult life. When doing so I have almost always left out how angry I am about not seeing more black faces. World War II in many ways made America what it is today. The heroes and successes of that time have reverberated down through the decades to this day. From a succession of US presidents to an explosion of global activity, World War II fundamentally altered America’s view of itself and the world. We threw off isolationism with the idea that if we were going to play the game of global politics, we were going to be the biggest and toughest on the field.

Because of segregation and broader systemic racism African-Americans were all but left out of the reinventing of America after World War II. There is a part of me that is jealous of white Americans who can trace their lineage with pride all the way back to the Revolutionary War. I look on with both awe and a little contempt when I’m asked to salute those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. I am frustrated when I conclude that there was no chance at all that the John F. Kennedys, Albert Einsteins, and Neil Armstrongs of recent American history were ever going to be African-American. America’s identity has always been greatly impacted by the wars it is fought in because it is where we have gotten our heroes and justified our truths. By being all but left out of American growth until the end of the 20th century, African-Americans are guaranteed a continuing disadvantage relative their white counterparts and the writing of American history into the 21st century.

America’s 10 most successful entrepreneurs of the technological age…

When I think of missed opportunities, I think about the fact that I have never seen an African-American host of a nature documentary. No African-American has ever been to the top of Mount Everest or the bottom of the ocean. Until recently if you asked questions about the history of African-American entrepreneurship everyone would try to convince you that George Washington Carver and hundred-something uses for the peanut equaled the accomplishments of the Carnegies and the Fords. Consider for a moment that since 1790 more than 6 million patents and 2.3 million trademarks have been issued by the US government with less than 100,000 being held by African-Americans. African-Americans own less than 1% of rural land in America (approximately 8 million acres) with a combined value of $14 billion, while white Americans own more than 98% of private rural land (856 million acres) worth well over $1 trillion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics over 650,000 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees were conferred in the United States in 2016. White Americans received approximately 53% of those degrees (358,000) while African-Americans accounted for only 7% (48,500). None of these statistics are indications of racism in America today. But they are clear illustrations of the legacy of the racism of the past, and they are certainly stark warnings about the continuation of that legacy far into the future.

Conclusion

It was impossible to try and write about the legacy of racism in America from an objective standpoint. I’ve been pondering this article ever since my first year of graduate school when my first mentor politely informed me, “race really isn’t a topic that will lead to your success as an academic.” It took me months to finish it after I first put pen to paper as I began to realize that I was more nervous about publishing this than anything else I had ever written. I am prouder of this work than even my PhD dissertation. But as I continue to await word on academic and government jobs a part of me is terrified that what I see as honest and open discussion may have just ended potential employment with a future white boss before I even got a chance to interview.

For me anxiety is probably the key result of my own interactions with America’s legacy of racism. As I wrote previously, the nature of systemic racism is ambiguity and thus I’ve often found that the adage, “just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,” applies to my perspectives more than it should. But since publishing Part I of this series I’ve quickly come to realize just how far we really have come as a society when engaging legacies of racism. Although I unwittingly recruited my first online trolls, I’ve also connected with individuals and communities, black and white, that I didn’t know existed. In particular I’ve been contacted by a few white friends and coworkers who are now coming to understand who I was, and who I am now. And I’ve realized I’m not alone in my commitment to America’s eternal struggle to rid itself of the legacy of racism.
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Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.