The Rights of Englishmen

Ta-Naheshi Coates, whose views on race in America are probably the best articulation of mine (save for reparations — I do not support reparations), gets what’s really at stake, and what has really been protested, in Ferguson:

The [city’s and the police department’s] “focus on revenue” was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained “even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables.”

One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but “discriminatory intent”—that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of “racism without racists,” but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it.

In effect, the black residents of Ferguson were there to be looted. They weren’t citizens, but subjects. Worse than subject, they were “natural resources,” or sheep, to be sheared when budgetary needs demanded. Conor Friedersdorf noted that the death of Michael Brown last summer merely triggered long-simmering resentments among Ferguson residents about how they have been treated:

Little wonder that black people in Ferguson took to the streets after the killing of Michael Brown. Sooner or later, some event was bound to push them over the edge into protest, and even if Officer Wilson acted totally unobjectionably in that encounter, it wouldn’t change the fact that the general lack of confidence expressed in municipal and police leadership was well-founded.

The struggle over race is America isn’t really about race. It’s about citizenship. And what the good folks of Ferguson were rebelling over were good old fashioned claims to the “Rights of Englishmen” to be treated with some respect and dignity by those in power and, more importantly, to not be mere sources of revenue to be extracted at will.

It’s the kind of assertion that challenged monarchs and prompted revolutions.

And it ought to be the kind of thing that should animate at least a few Tea Party types. After all, the kind of government they fear is coming to rule them already rules other Americans in places like Ferguson.

But there’s a simple reason the Tea Party doesn’t much care. Because black folks aren’t Englishmen, and they do not have — and cannot ever possess — the Rights of Englishmen.

The fight over race in America is a fight over citizenship. It is about what it means to be an American and who gets to be an American. Americanness is an ideological construction, with one foot in a set of ideals that claim to be universal, that say they apply to all of humanity equally. This is America “at is best,” at least for some, and is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama whenever he gets hifalutin on the matter.

But the other foot stands solidly on a particular. These “universal” rights are not just distilled from the Enlightenment, but from over 1,000 years of English history, of give and take between (and among) people, nobility, and monarch. And this footing says only Englishmen get to exercise these rights because only Englishmen can. Everyone else is only fit to be some kind of subject.

This understanding is best expressed in Jacksonian populism, which extended the Rights of Englishmen down to the poorest white farmer (and, eventually, to all European immigrants, despite some initial resistance). The Rights of Englishmen were given conditionally to “well behaved” non-whites. But they could be denied at will, and frequently are.

(This tension between the universal and the particular is not just America’s problem; France has never known what to do with Muslims since the “universal” aspirations of Frenchness have always deliberately excluded Islam and Muslims from any possibility they could meaningfully be French.)

The Tea Party isn’t interested in Ferguson simply because it inherits more of the Jacksonian particularism than it does any universal proclamation of rights and ideals. The Tea Party isn’t saying “Americans are being denied their rights” but “we Englishmen are being denied our rights!” Black folks were never really entitled to the Rights of Englishmen, cannot claim them, and thus were never really Americans in any substantial sense. And that was clear in the pre-civil rights racial order — an order which has never really stopped appealing to what became conservatism since the mid-1950s. So, to ask that conservatives who see the shadows of jackbooted thugs from underneath their tricorner hats to empathize with the black residents of a tiny town bullied and abused by their government and their police is truly asking too much. Those residents don’t have rights worth respecting.

I appreciate and even admire that black folks are fighting for something resembling equal citizenship (and to claim the Rights of Englishmen), to live up to the noble aspirations of America’s universal ideals. I just think it is a fool’s errand to do so because the universal ideas are themselves a lie down to their very foundation. The particular is far more real, and it will always mean that someone will be excluded because they cannot be “Englishmen.” These rights seems to have magically migrated to all sorts of non-English people (that the Irish got to be white is truly an amazing thing), but they won’t ever belong to you. You won’t be allowed to claim them.

No, I do not have an answer. Sometimes I think it’s enough to simply call a thing so widely believed a lie. And I do think America is a lie. A beautiful, amazing, astounding, incredible, beguiling lie. But a lie nevertheless. As true as the earth is flat.

One thought on “The Rights of Englishmen

  1. An excellent post, which I support – not with reservations, but with some remarks about the complexities of how it works out in various cases:

    America (in the sense of American ‘Exceptionalism’) may well be a lie in the New Deal version of the Dream. It is not a lie for those who stress “equality of opportunity”, at least if we define opportunity as the variety of options open to those with greater than average ability who have reached adulthood with a fairly sound education and no self-destructive habits or manias. That is, America does work as a meritocracy, at least for many kinds of merit. That may well be the ideal embraced by the tea party folks – I don’t actually know any. But it isn’t the liberal ideal of the 1950s, which broke up on the rocks of the 60s and 70s. That former and more comprehensive ideal was based on community, on mutual help and support for those of lesser ‘merit’. The 1950s consensus was quite naïve about the difficulties of maintaining such functioning community institutions, especially since liberal culture was actively undermining the roots of community, knowingly or not. Perhaps that didn’t matter either – the rise of new technology was wrecking communal ties very effectively independently of any ideology.

    I doubt that the Jacksonian revolution really extended down to the poorest whites. Rather it was the men of influence and action on the frontier who demanded their due and got it from the appalled Easterners. Likewise, Goldwater in 1964 and the rise of the sun-belt in the next few decades, gave equal clout to the machers of the West, at the expense of the declining North-Eastern Ivy-League elite.

    I live in a small town with a large university in a mostly rural region at the northern fringes of the Appalachian foot-hills. There is a sizable population of poor-to-getting-by whites in this region, which is growing as the small towns decline and fade away. This is a class of people who are just as alienated, frustrated and resentful of the institutions of authority as any minority. If anyone refers to “the law” where others would say “the police”, they likely belong to this group: as in, “This is a nice, peaceful trailer park. We don’t get the law out here much.” [The trailer park where I live gets the law plenty, but it’s large and close to the center of town. I even got a police cruiser coming by to check me out one night when I was walking the dog later than I should have.]

    These are people who will never rise in the meritocracy. Most would have trouble balancing a checkbook, much less running a business or picking the best insurance or retirement fund (I’m not very good at that myself). They would never go to the police for help. There’s always the chance that when someone gave their name, a bunch of tickets or an outstanding warrant might pop up on the computer. It’s happened to people I know. When a friend of our youngest son (guitarist in his band at the time) went to the courthouse to take care of some technicality paperwork as a favor to us (I forget exactly why), he was whisked away to a jail cell, because of some minor offense from years earlier. We paid his bail to get him out until his parents could get to town and reimburse us. Another friend was taken from his home to jail one day with no word of explanation, no information as to the charge. As it turned out, he had co-signed a lease for a friend of his with bad credit, and when the friend left town with rent owing, it went through small claims, a summons was issued, which our friend somehow never received, then a warrant for failure to appear.

    When one construction crew was hired to help out with some heavy-lifting reconfiguring of a lab area in the facility where I worked, one guy was caught stealing tools from the stockroom. The head of the crew asked the lab director not to call the police about it, that they would make good any loss, and make sure it didn’t happen again. The thief was then taken out and beaten by his co-workers (probably many of them relatives), paying the price to restore the credibility of the crew, on which their livelihoods depended.

    Crime here is overwhelming committed by whites. This is partly because the black population is small, but also because the black community here has been tightly controlled by their Baptist and AME Methodist churches, their pastors, and the church ladies who were matriarchs of large and influential families. After de-facto discrimination became largely a thing of the past in the 70s (sooner here in a liberal college town than other places), these black leaders also became forces to be reckoned with in the city as a whole. Black gangs from cities to the north have sometimes tried to gain a foothold, but without much success. There is a large white criminal infrastructure already in place. These people exhibit all the social pathologies most would associate with urban black neighborhoods. If anything their behavior is worse, because they have no sense of any kind of community movement supporting them, no cultural heroes, no hope. At least blacks in, say, Indianapolis, [judging roughly by anecdotes I’ve heard] are smart enough to keep their mouths shut when they’re arrested and not make a bad situation worse. The typical redneck brawler, on the contrary, can’t help antagonizing arresting officers and saying the worst possible things.

    America is a lie if the lie is that this is a country where the strong usually go out of their way to help the weak, the able helping the less able. It does happen and maybe more than in some other parts of the world. But it is not nearly common enough to say that this is how things really work. If this were really a Christian country, it would be otherwise.

    No doubt race is stigmatized in other (most?) parts of the country in a way which makes black Americans an easy target for injustice. I don’t mean to minimize the burden of structural injustice which African Americans have always carried. But I just wanted to add that there are many who suffer in similar ways, some of whom are thoroughly ‘English’. Our older boys knew a girl in school – pretty, blonde, popular, intelligent and articulate. She could have been a poster girl for Anglo ethnic privilege. But heroin addiction destroyed her life and her family as thoroughly as it has anyone else’s. Many of my youngest son’s friends are just adrift in this world, in this economy, which has no place for them. Some left their moribund small towns with expectations of a better life, and later had to return to live with their parents until something improves somehow. They desperately did not want to do this. Some would rather die, and maybe some have by their own hand. I want to say something to them – to convince them that the dismal and cruel prospect before them is not the whole truth, that in fact the great power behind creation has promised a new birth, that the last shall be first, that he has suffered to take away our offenses, our fatal human weakness, and can fill us with power and bestow upon us victory. I don’t know yet how to say it to the people who need to hear it most. To say it in a way which will overcome their resistance and hostility, reactions to false gospels offered without love and humility. I don’t know how. But I’ve got to do it. Let’s do it. Somehow.

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