Democracy Newsletter: December 2023
Our November 6 discussion centered on how the extensive history of white supremacy threatens the existence of democracy. The Hidden Origins of White Supremacy and the Path to a Shared American Future, by Robert P. Jones (2023), was the book that provided the impetus for our discussion. It should be noted that the author is a white Christian minister and leader from the South. For my quotes and notes on the book or for a link to a recording of our discussion, email me.
The author asks us to consider: “Is America a divinely ordained promised land for European Christians, or a pluralistic democracy where all stand on equal footing before the law (Page 6)?” He discusses the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated by the Church as Western European powers slowly decimated native populations in the Americas: “The Doctrine of Discovery claims that European civilization and western Christianity are superior to all other cultures, races and religions. It follows that domination and colonial conquest were merely the means of improving the eternal lot of Indigenous peoples (Page 14).” From this view, the “favor” we did for Indigenous Americans was providing them an opportunity to become civilized as we destroyed their culture.
The author contends that the idea of Christian superiority has dominated American history right up to the present: “This sense of divine entitlement has shaped the worldview of most white Americans and thereby influenced key events, policies, and laws throughout American history” (Page 19). But as we dig up the civilizations that disappeared before the arrival of Europeans, we discover that native societies were much more complex than we imagined: “Archeological evidence indicates human presence in what is now Mississippi as far back as 10,000 BCE. These people were nomadic hunters of large animals like mastodon and bison. As the area began to warm over the next few millennia, Indigenous people adopted a more sedentary farming lifestyle and established villages connected by trade. By 1000 CE, Native Americans were living in complex societies, with large settlements and ceremonial temple mounds” (Page 32).
As we decimated the native population, we forced the remainder to move westward so that white settlers could occupy their land: “After personally overseeing brutal military campaigns against Native Americans as a general, Andrew Jackson (elected 1828)...made ‘Indian Removal’ the center of his presidency” (Page 40). Our brutal treatment of Native Americans was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his widely read book Democracy In America (1831): “It is impossible to conceive the frightful sufferings that attend these forced migrations” (Page 42).
In the early 1900s, many southern Blacks moved north to escape persecution and being stuck in menial, low-paying jobs: “One of the primary destinations for Blacks fleeing Mississippi’s toxic environment was Chicago, which saw more than 100 Black emigrants arriving each day at the height of the migration” (Page 54). Emmett Till, whose mother moved to Chicago from Mississippi, a 14 year old visiting relatives in the south in 1955, was lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman. The trial of the perpetrators resulted in a verdict of not guilty by an all-white male jury. His mother insisted that he have an open casket to show the condition of his body, which resulted in wide publicity and a civil-rights awakening across the US.
Segregation continued in the South for over 100 years after the end of the Civil War, but the courts began to declare it illegal based on the 1866 “equal protection” 14th Amendment: “The US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v Board of Education (1954) was an unmistakable sign that the federal government was dismantling a major Jim Crow stronghold…its segregated schools” (Page 55).
Registering Blacks to vote began after that war, but Southerners resisted. Northerners who arrived to assist the process were met by a great deal of violence. Resistance to civil rights and teaching history continues to this day: “On March 24, 2022, Governor Tate Reeves signed into law a bill purporting to ban the teaching of ‘critical race theory.’ Given that there is no evidence that anything resembling critical race theory was being taught in state primary and secondary schools, the law achieved nothing” (Page 103).
One must wonder, despite the teaching of brotherly love in the Christian Bible, how so many have justified hatred and discrimination against Blacks and Native Americans for the entire history of the US: “Christianity…has too often been anchored in a self-serving emotional experience that is untethered from morality and justice” (Page 107).
Once they were dispossessed of their lands, Native Americans were promised they could keep the new areas to which they were moved, but then they even were forced off those lands as settlers encroached. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) included a vast tract of land, ostensibly owned by the French, from the current State of Louisiana to the Canadian border, to the fledgling United States, but of course that land already was occupied by numerous Native tribes.
In almost all cases, treaties made with tribes were broken. In Minnesota, the Dakota tribe was given a generous treaty but cheated out of its funds. Then they were attacked by a huge influx of settlers that resulted in their going on a rampage, which caused them to lose the land they were promised: “Pushed off their lands and with most of their promised annual compensation stolen each year before it ever arrived, the situation became desperate among the Dakota people in the winter and spring of 1861-62 (Page 126)….Dakota warriors fanned out across a 150-mile swath of the state, attacking forts, towns, and white homesteads in what would become the most violent ethnic conflict in American history” (Page 128). The Ojibwe tribe in the area of Duluth also lost their lands with little or no compensation (Page 140).
As in the South, Minnesota had its share of lynchings based on white supremacy: “In 1920, an enraged white mob of 10,000 people lynched three Black men in Duluth…a white woman accused a Black man of raping her. The accused were a group of Black men working in town for a single day” (Page 142). A doctor who examined the woman said, “I don’t think she was raped.” But again, the perpetrators received minor sentences. Also in Minnesota: “In 1931, a Black family was attacked by an angry mob in their south Minneapolis home by whites who wanted them out of the neighborhood” (Page 160). But, as in the South, “Textbooks in Minnesota history contained no mentions of the mob or lynchings.”
As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, those who survived the trek to Oklahoma were promised the territory “forever” (Page 187). But white settlers were encouraged to take part in a land race in 1889, replacing the occupants whenever possible: “By 1825, the US government successfully pressured the Osage to cede more than 100 million acres of their tribal lands” (Page 199). Because the auto industry created a large demand for oil starting in the early 1900s, a number of schemes tried to deprive them of their profits. Then in 1921, Congress passed a law to establish “guardians” for the Osage and restrict access to their funds. Worse yet: “Between 1918 and 1931, wealthy Osage were systematically targeted for marriage and murder by whites who wanted control of their headrights, as documented in Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann” (Page 206).
Not far away, in Tulsa, Blacks established the prosperous Greenwood District, where, in 1921, white Tulsans unleashed unspeakable violence against African Americans, killing hundreds and displacing thousands in just two days (Page 211). Again, this history was largely ignored: “The Tulsa ‘race riot’ was mentioned in an Oklahoma history book in 1941 in a single paragraph” (Page 229). At last, 100 years after the massacre, there is some recognition of the event by Tulsa’s white churches (Page 235).
The author’s main concern is that, although we cannot change the past, refusing to acknowledge the horrors imposed by the white majority on Indigenous and Black Americans make us less likely to do better in the future: “Authentic healing flows from, and true repentance is built on, the twin pillars of truth-telling and repair. For us to learn from the past, we have to look at and wrestle with all of it — the sad and the ugly as well as the good and the great” (Page 239). He cites a number of incidents in which lands have been returned to tribes.
There also is a slow awakening of the pattern of police brutality against Blacks: “In the wake of national protests for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded the removal of 168 Confederate monuments in 2020….In 2001 the US House of Representatives voted to remove statues honoring Confederate or white supremacist leaders from public display in the US Capitol” (Page 264).
Indigenous Peoples’ Day began to be commemorated in 2021 under Joe Biden, and some churches have voted to create reparation funds “to atone for their role in slavery and to benefit the descendants of the enslaved people they had once owned.” But not all churches have joined this effort: “The Southern Baptist, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination in which I grew up, doubled down against efforts at truth-telling and repair” (Page 267).
There also have been international efforts to recognize the damage: “In 2007, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed by the UN following 25 years of lobbying” (Page 269). The US only signed on to this declaration in 2010. Many US church organizations have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery since that time, followed by the Vatican in 2023.
The author asks: “How do we cope responsibly with our history as the descendants and beneficiaries of perpetrators of unspeakable violence done in the name of the country and faith we still claim? We have been the occupiers and the enslavers, not the displaced or the enslaved” (Page 306). We only recently began to acknowledge the role of white supremacy in our history: “Euphemisms like explorer, pioneer, and homesteader created a respectable veneer that smoothed over terms like invader, occupier and colonizer” (Page 307).
He reminds us that democracy is based on the idea of every individual being considered equally valuable members of society, but we often have failed to follow democratic principles, and making up for the past may be needed: “If we choose democracy, it will require more than just confession by an unflinching few. It will require joining the work already underway to repair the damage done by this malignant cultural legacy” (Page 310).
Perhaps most importantly, establishing true democracy in our everyday situations and lives will need all of us to be educated and committed to the principle of treating others with recognition for their value as human beings. Only as this principle takes hold will we each have our own human value guaranteed.
Steve Zolno graduated from Shimer College with a bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and holds a master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. Steve has founded and directed private schools and a health care agency in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the author of six books.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.