"...I would have picked my own cotton."
The above bumper sticker/sign is a perennial best seller where Confederate memorabilia is sold. Precisely what does it mean? Whites would turn back the clock, not import and enslave African Americans, and then attempt to build a powerhouse of a nation based on cotton, tobacco and indigo, the crops that created the wealth of the country, with their own hands? Not likely. The Confederacy seceded from the Union to preserve slavery, causing the Civil War. A war lost, where upon they did everything in their power to restore and maintain the racial hierarchy of white supremacy, which essentially stayed intact until 1964. The explanation one "If I’d known this -blacks would be freed and left to ruin everything- I’d have picked my own cotton and left them in Africa where they belong." Another: "Look around you! Can’t you see what their presence has done to our street/neighborhood/town country? We would have better off not bringing them here, even if it means we would have had to pick our own cotton. We don’t want them here!” Yet another: ““If we’d known you all were going to be this much f—–g trouble, we would have picked our own f—–g cotton,” (actually said to Baltimore City Attny Mobsy supporting a civil rights lawsuit against a police union). "If we'd picked our own cotton then there would be no black people and this country would be a heavenly existence. Yeehaw!" All variants of they'd be rid of the "problem."
The Civil War supplanted what many considered the "Slavery Problem" with the "Negro problem." But the Covid pandemic and the murder of George Floyd (and other instances of police brutality) and the ferocious backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement revealed our national problem to be a blind spot problem, an ignorance and denial of history problem, an lack of accountability problem, a problem of unacknowledged, unaddressed and enduring systemic racism. As most people of color were not shocked by the chasm the twin pandemics revealed, arguably, at this point, one could say we have a "White Problem".
I am not finger pointing. Nor am I castigating. Quite the contrary. I applaud each and every one who, as the summer unfolded, saw the events as tip of the iceberg revelations, and jumped into self education, advocacy and action. I am hopeful, heartened by all of those in study groups and affinity groups reading Anti-Racist literature, learning some of the history we were not taught, examining the history and policies that have brought us to the confluence, examining their own hearts and minds, and addressing issues of equity and inclusion in their workplaces. I include myself in that quest, and applaud my white friends and colleagues who have done so in groups of their own. So many friends and allies seeking to be co-conspirators in dismantling the systems that support inequality is cataclysmic. So many young people willing to put themselves on the line is stunning.
But what troubles me is how clearly the summer, then the election revealed the battle lines. Despite Biden/Harris ticket definitive Electoral College victory and 6 million vote popular vote margin, many deem their victory illegitimate. If we can believe the polls, of the more than 70 million people who voted the other ticket, at least 50 million do not believe Biden/Harris won. These voters were not only committed to the same path as the last 4 years, but without one shred of evidence, they choose to believe the election was "rigged", "stolen" and "fraudulent." That's 50 million people who choose to believe theirs is the only valid choice, and will likely be deaf to any arguments for the kind of healing or change our country needs.
Which brings me to the bumper sticker, a defiant, insulting relic of a war lost over 150 years ago. The South remained defiant, and the promise of the Union victory for African Americans and Reconstruction was short lived. After fewer than a dozen years, Redemption, or the return to white supremacy and removal of rights for Blacks, prevailed, political pressure backed by mob and paramilitary violence, and apathy. Some have described the situation as the South "winning" the peace. So much so that not until the 2nd Civil Rights era, in the 1950's and 60's, were some of the promises of the Union Victory even partially fulfilled.
I have been and will continue to trace the history of the policies and events that have brought us to today in these blogs. There is so much more to cover, including deep dives into the contributions of federal housing, education, social and medical policies that created our current situation (some have labelled those policies "White Affirmative Action.") And I am chipping away at it; so much to read and see and so little time!
I really appreciate all of you. But I have no illusions that everyone is interested in drinking from this firehose of information, even in digest form. But I am optimistic that our enlightened army will make a difference.
We are now saddled with an additional four years of damage to be undone. Our work is clearly delineated. As MLK said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Whether through individual advocacy, legal challenges or policy changes, let each of us all do our part. Change happens slowly, but together, we can accomplish multitudes. Together, we can get rid of the problem - of unexamined, entrenched white supremacy.
May it be so.
Doing an excerpt of My Stroke of Luck for UCSF on Tuesday December 8, 5:30-6:30 PM with talkback with 2 UCSF stroke and neuro specialists. Free Registration required .