Daniel Herman

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We appear to be in a revolution. First, it was Confederate statues that protesters targeted. Then it was Union general and U.S. president Ulysses Grant, who was briefly a slaveholder and who prosecuted wars against Native Americans. In Washington, D.C., protesters pulled down a statue of another slaveholder, George Washington. Protesters also tried to topple a statue of Andrew Jackson, the slaveholding president who was author of Indian removal.

Though protesters can be excessive — as when they pulled down the statue of abolitionist Hans Heg — they are right in principle. Our nation was built on conquest and slavery. To the degree that our statues glorify that legacy, they fully deserve removal.

But are conquest and slavery all the statues represent?

If we boil down our past solely to racism, we risk losing sight of its complexity and fullness. Shall we tear down Ulysses Grant’s statue despite the fact that he defeated Robert E. Lee; endorsed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; used martial law to crush the KKK; and received fulsome praise from Frederick Douglass?

What about Washington? By 1786, he was privately opposing slavery. Though history is murky, he seems to have used political allies to introduce a plan for emancipation. James Madison shot it down. Washington went on to manumit his slaves upon his death — specifically to set an example — and set aside money for their education. Though perhaps this isn’t as important as it once was, he also led a rag-tag, starving, multi-racial army to victory over the world’s most powerful king.

Yes, let’s rethink our heroes. There is no reason to forever enshrine ancient personages in statues and coinage. But we should keep in mind contradiction and complexity.

My second point unfolds from the first. If we read the past solely as a story of oppression, we risk flattening history. Consider Andrew Jackson, once hero to Democrats. Jackson’s party favored laborers, farmers and immigrants over industrialists and bankers. To win national elections, Democrats needed a Southern constituency (Jackson came from Tennessee). The fact that laborers and immigrants allied with slaveholders made them ready advocates of racism and Indian removal.

The opposition party, the Whigs, voted against both Indian removal and expansion of slavery. Their successors, the Republicans, abolished chattel slavery altogether and backed suffrage for African-Americans. To succeed, however, Whigs and Republicans — whose core constituency was affluent Northerners — embraced an anti-union, anti-populist, anti-immigrant politics that shaded into classist sneering.

You probably see where I’m going. Coalition-building meant that supporters of economic justice often worked against racial justice, and vice versa.

Modern politics are profoundly different, but there are echoes of past contradictions.

My thinking shares much with that of Adolph Reed, William Julius Wilson, and Brianna Gray, who tell us we can’t redress racial inequities without addressing structures that gird them. Reed notes that Black income in proportion to white income remains unchanged since 1968, despite the fact that the Black middle class has grown significantly. The reasons are (1) white income among the top 10% has grown far faster than Black income; and (2) real wages have stagnated since the 1970s. Too, blacks carry a disproportionate share of college debt and are 300% likelier than whites to be underinsured. This is not solely a story of racism; it’s also a story of political economy.

The protesters — and Democrats who support them — will have to tear down more than statues if they want revolution. Democrats may well have to tear down the edifice of their party, with its powerful donor class and its longstanding sympathies for Wall Street and the insurance industry. A coalition of white professionals and POC may yield desperately needed police and penal reforms, but it’s not likely to restructure the economy. Dismissing political foes as “fascists” and “cop-lovers,” meanwhile, offers emotional release without altering constituencies. Indeed it hardens constituencies.

Creating economic fairness requires a new constituency. That doesn’t mean that a majority of white working people must join. Nor does it require abolishing capitalism. What it requires is creating a multi-racial coalition of working people to push for living wages and universal health care.

Most Democrats support that vision. The structure of their party insures its failure.

Daniel Herman is a Central Washington University history professor. Left and Right is a column provided by CWU professors to represent a variety of political viewpoints.

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