And the book says: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us!”

From Tenured Radical, a particularly troubling development in the race to replace Chris Lee, the Republican former House representative from New York’s 26th District who resigned recently after being caught soliciting sex from women on Craigslist.  (Between him and Aaron Schock, the House Republicans these days seem to have a crippling shirt allergy.  It’s not often that I find myself to have something in common with the Grand Old Partiers in Congress, but there you go.)  Jack Davis, a independent candidate seeking Tea Party endorsement for Lee’s seat, suggested in a recent endorsement interview with local Republican leaders that unemployed African Americans be brought from the inner city to farms as agricultural laborers, replacing Latin American immigrants whose legality is sometimes in question.  Davis gets to have his xenophobia and eat his culture of poverty, too!

Of course, for many people, Davis’ suggestion recalls Parchman Farm, convict leasing, and slavery itself, vile practices and institutions that are anathema to the basically free and equal society in which we supposedly live today.  However, as I like to remind my students, when we talk about the past it’s important not to fall into the progressive idea of history in which things always get better.  If you haven’t read Heather Thompson’s excellent article “Why Mass Incarceration Matters” in the December 2010 issue of the Journal of American History, it’s definitely worth your time.  One of her arguments is that mass imprisonment has contributed to the decline of organized labor by providing a cheap and literally captive workforce in states that have prison work laws on the books.  My point is that although we might want to consign this kind of rhetoric to a less enlightened past, or to the representatives of a fringe political movement, we do so at the ignorance of injustice in the present.


2 thoughts on “And the book says: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us!”

  1. Recently, for reasons related to my own work but also because of comments like Davis’s, I have begun to wonder how the polity might have proceeded without tidy racial explanations for poverty and progress. I realize this kind of counterfactual risks being ahistorical or even naive. But racial designations do make it easy to write off poverty as a character flaw easily corrected with hard work. We know that racial slavery helped consolidate free labor as an ideological statement about “who we are.” Metaphors of bondage, for instance, were long integral to myths of self-making and the ethos of individualism, ideas which continue to undermine progressive politics and support nasty spitefulness for the poor. The conviction of people like Davis that they are being decent and well-meaning when they propose “reforms” which presuppose that some populations lack cultural fitness is of course the philosophical foundation and practical reality of liberalism, an organizing principle of the national polity. Returning to where I began–and joining your implicit call to take comments like Davis’s seriously to build progressive politics–it makes me wonder what is left of our political traditions when we acknowledge racial truths to have been historically fundamental to their appeal and value. Can the “civic” survive its nationalist counterpart, the “racial”? Some scholars, as we know, say yes. But I’m less sure.

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