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A More Perfect Reunion
Race, Integration, and the Future of America
By Calvin Baker
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Americans have prided ourselves on how far we’ve come from slavery, lynching, and legal segregation-measuring ourselves by incremental progress instead of by how far we have to go. But fifty years after the last meaningful effort toward civil rights, the US remains overwhelmingly segregated and unjust. Our current solutions — diversity, representation, and desegregation — are not enough.
As acclaimed writer Calvin Baker argues in this bracing, necessary book, we first need to envision a society no longer defined by the structures of race in order to create one. The only meaningful remedy is integration: the full self-determination and participation of all African-Americans, and all other oppressed groups, in every facet of national life. This is the deepest threat to the racial order and the real goal of civil rights.
At once a profound, masterful reading of US history from the colonial era forward and a trenchant critique of the obstacles in our current political and cultural moment, A More Perfect Reunion is also a call to action. As Baker reminds us, we live in a revolutionary democracy. We are one of the best-positioned generations in history to finish that revolution.
“You’re the first extranjero who has ever been in my home,” he said. Maybe he meant foreigner; maybe he meant stranger. I wasn’t sure. It was late in the evening and I didn’t ask him to clarify. We were in the living room of a one-story cinder-block building, a brick-by-brick undertaking still taking shape. The kind of house you build yourself—as circumstances dictate—according to your courage of imagination to meet them. It was my final night on the island, near the southern coast of Mexico, between Cancer and the Equator. It was five hours by rough roads to the nearest city and two hours from the market town, where people from the smaller villages went to find provisions: hardware, appliances, an honest agent to broker what affairs they might have with the larger world. I had arrived there largely by chance, in search of a quality of solitude vanishingly rare.
There were only a few hundred families on the island, mostly fisherfolk who had moved in after the logging companies stripped the area of hardwood and left behind the road they had constructed to transport the timber to market, which went by way of the sea. They said that before Cortés arrived, there was an older habitation there, but only a few traces remained, turning up only when someone was digging deep to lay the foundation of a new building.
His wife had taught me some words in Mayan, and their preteen children wanted to know if I’d seen an outlandish Hollywood movie whose protagonist shared my name. We were all in stitches as they recounted the plot. Besides that, our conversation was about history, land rights, property values, and climate. It was a conversation that might be had anywhere, especially between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego: property, laws, value, policy, culture, change. All of these were flowing, perhaps more in one direction than the other. Nothing about any of it felt remarkable except the prelapsarian beauty of the island and neighbors who greeted even a stranger on roads where one might walk a mile without seeing anyone. But I have spent a lot of time walking around talking to people the powerful never listen to. We were speaking Castilian, a lingua franca with a local inflection, which was neither of our mother tongues. We live, after all, in an age of global humanity.
Far from being a new phenomenon, the current historical epoch began across the Atlantic world in the fifteenth century, when Europe reemerged from the isolation of the Dark Ages, reencountered her neighbors in Afro-Eurasia, and soon ventured to the Americas on the same trade winds.
We are only too familiar with the accidents, massacres, and tragedies that later unfolded, but the ability to travel great distances also sparked the modern global movement of people that has increased exponentially in the ensuing years. However one may feel about it, at some unseen inflection point we crossed the event horizon, and this process became irreversible. We will never again be anything other than a global species.
Before the Portuguese reached the River Senegal, before Marco Polo met Kublai Khan, from the very beginning of anatomically modern humans 300,000 years ago, and even earlier, people were already on the move. First, we traveled from East Africa across the continent, then, 70,000 years ago, journeyed eastward into Asia. Forty thousand years ago, according to current consensus, humans ventured west into Europe and finally, 15,000 years ago, populated the Americas.
Africa, Europe, and Asia occupy a single landmass, of course, a fact we often overlook. At various points in geological time, America was also connected. Those early hunter-gatherers were following the herds in search of resources, as were the farmers who spread from the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. So too were the early Portuguese, who wanted to circumvent Muslim control of the trans-Saharan trade routes in search of gold. It wasn’t this simple, naturally. History is sometimes an arrow, sometimes a wave. But it seems that human nature and the shape of the globe mean we were, one way or another, fated to meet again.
More recently, as colonialism was felled and democracy spread after World War II, this migration shifted from the periphery of empires to metropolitan centers, as people sought relief from collapsing economic systems based on exploitation. In our own time, as centers of power and capital continue to shift, this movement has multiplied across the entire world. People now relocate for economic, environmental, political, educational, familial, and purely personal reasons, at a pace and scale that make this movement a central fact of contemporary life. It is also a fact that threatens and overwhelms “traditional” societies and eighteenth-century ethno-national ideas of states.
I am glossing over a great deal, but the tension between global humanity and ethno-nationalism, along with its fraternal twin, race, seems to me the fundamental backdrop against which current events are unfolding. This owes in large degree to the fact that for most people race, a flawed, antiquated explanation for the physical differences among people, codified in the eighteenth century, remains in this century the central totem of the self. Certainly, to speak of things I know best, this is true in my own country, which so often proclaims itself the light of the world. It does not matter that the alleged science behind race has long since been proven as erroneous as a flat Earth; it long ago became a foundational myth of who we are, taught early and reinforced often. In the United States race is, even more than national tribe, a useful fiction to explain to us who we are and how we are oriented toward the world. As such, it is less a valid idea than an organizing belief. In this case a form of magical thinking impervious to fact but ever threatened by truth.
Our current notion of race began on the dim edge of the Middle Ages, before the universe was heliocentric, before we knew gravity. At best, it was a primitive, tentative grasp toward understanding the physical world; at worst, it was a way of asserting the primacy of one tribe over another. When it was considered in earnest by science, it was initially rejected. James Cowles Prichard, a physician and opponent of slavery from Bristol who was the leading British scholar of race, wrote in an 1813 book entitled Researches into the Physical History of Man that “on the whole, it appears that we may with a high degree of probability draw the inference, that all the different races into which the human species is divided, originated from one family.”1
Race’s true usefulness, however, was not to science but as a technology of war, of depopulating continents, seizing the wealth of others, erasing the beauty and wisdom of unknown cultures, enslaving people, and otherwise dividing humanity for imperial gain: all the material forces we talk about so often, which we now so clearly know threaten to destroy the world.
Just as crucially, beneath all this there is a racial ego that goes beyond reason and even material greed. This racial ego, which asserts the superiority of one person over another based on nothing except phenotype, has always informed both individual and group self-perception. It continues to perform this function in our own time, even as interconnectivity has increased, science has debunked race, and most of us, if not always our presidents, kings, queens, and ministers, embrace the diversity of peoples and cultures as belonging to a universal humanity equally worthy of respect, even awe.
This isn’t a book about globalization, or colonialism, or even race, but about a concept I think is of more vital importance to the world as it is and not as it was: integration. It is a deceptively simple term, one we think we understand based on our received ideas, be they positive or negative. However, as we’ll see, the idea of integration has always been too frightening, too threatening to the status quo to ever consider fully, so much so that twenty years into this century we have barely begun to consider what it means.
Although there has been an increasing awareness of the force of the past on the present over the past fifty years, one of the things integration inevitably implies is using this knowledge to dismantle the bricks of slavery and colonialism. It is one of the few tools capable of doing so, where so much prior history has accrued. The present discussion is about the United States, but it seems a short leap of the imagination to see that the implications of this experiment involve the future for everyone.
Yet even in a country so fond of congratulating itself for being the first modern democracy, the few moments when we have come close to relinquishing the colonial past have always produced a quick retreat from what is, properly understood, the most radical, transformative idea in US politics. The reason we recoil, in language, in policy, in the lives we lead, is because the transformation that integration is capable of upsets not only abstract institutional systems of governance, economics, and culture but also our deep, private selves.
The collective institutions of society that perpetuate racism, and its role in identity formation, are also the same apparatus that creates each of us. Because of this, it is impossible to fully know their effects. We are too implicated. Because these systems are so unfathomably deep within us, the thought of doing away with them shakes us to the core. Instead of talking about integration—the solution to the problems we have inherited—we retreat, or are forced back, into the familiar, threadbare language of race, which in turns soothes us, prompts despair, lulls us into half-measures as we tell ourselves that this is all that can be done for now or that the problem is too complex.
The problem is complex. It is also imminently solvable, if we reframe it in a way that lets us look without flinching. Quite simply, our problem is not race—that tired, old arithmetic that keeps us forever circling the point and has carried us, arguably, as far as it is capable—it is the calculus of integration, dismantling the problems and structures that race actively creates.
For hundreds of years, integration has been the clear-eyed, logical goal of the civil rights struggle. For an equal length of time, it has been something Americans have sought to avoid. Fifty years after the last meaningful effort toward civil rights, the country remains overwhelmingly segregated and overwhelmingly unjust. Integration, which is nothing less than full equality, is a state that can exist only where the line of race is not eternally re-created.
Because the race line gives such comfort, integration is an idea that, shockingly, has been abolished from political discourse. Instead, we discuss piecemeal problems and piecemeal solutions. Because of the racial ego, on the individual and group level integration remains something few can conceive. In a society in which the material and psychological race line was not eternally re-created, it would be as plain as day. Instead, it is a radical proposal.
The aim of these pages is not to be proscriptive. The way to abolish the race line is simply to abolish the race line. The policy measures necessary to do so may differ according to the area of society, but in a country that has deployed a New Deal and a Marshall Plan, they are neither mysterious nor particularly deep. What’s deep are the lies we tell and excuses we make to avoid tackling this problem, which, left to its own devices, will destroy the country, perhaps even wants to destroy it. The simple reason is that this problem is and has always been the tyrannical enemy of democracy, and there are a great many more than we care to admit who are perfectly comfortable with tyranny. That should be apparent to all at this late juncture, as recent events have come to remind us.
There is another foe of action, besides the right-wing extremism that has recently been renormalized. It is the compromise institutional liberalism has long made with tyranny in the name of its own comfort, self-regard, and a desire for power and expediency that rationalize any shortcoming. This self-regard seeks to turn the conversation from integration whenever it is raised, to refocus narratives of culture and politics so that they appease narratives of race instead of democracy. It is a politics of negative capability, asserting what those in control of liberal institutions believe and what they deem realistic in order to maintain their own power, not what is necessary to complete US democracy. This sort of liberalism is enmeshed with white supremacy and does its bidding, whatever it may claim its intentions to be.
This book is concerned with the true goals of civil rights and equal citizenship, going back to the revolutionary generation, which have been abandoned after a campaign of massive conservative resistance intended to muddy the waters and thwart the way. It is about what might have been and what might yet be: if the generations now alive are bold enough to relinquish the lies of the past, the lies many in power claim as immovable reality, and battle again for democracy.
Of course, the political class and the media class and all those whose livelihoods depend on things remaining as they currently are will argue that none of this is possible. That America is still not yet ready. What they mean in fact is they are not yet ready, even though this has always been a generations-long struggle. The transactional systems of governance and commerce suit such people perfectly well, and those who fancy themselves to be part of an American elite are happy to perpetuate the current state of affairs.
If we wish to have a democracy of free and equal people, we must be willing to wage war with all tyrants, whether they announce their intention outright or call themselves friends. Why shouldn’t we? They are already at war with democracy and human dignity.
Before introducing what will be for many people, some with the best intentions in the world, an unpopular idea, it may be useful to remember how a system of myths—made-up stories meant to explain something people didn’t have any better answer for long ago: some benign, some malign, many flamboyantly stupid—have shaped so much of history. How it defies belief to observe the ways the assumptions of race continue to shape events in a world where we tell ourselves we know better. We do, and we don’t.
It is one thing to know something. The real question—what to do with this knowledge—has proved paralyzing for just as long. And so we do as little as possible, to our continued detriment. Already in the early years of the country, thinkers from Jefferson to de Tocqueville understood the emergent system of racial tyranny as the greatest threat to American democracy.
Yet Americans have always, every generation, found a way to live with this tyranny or else to do some of the work and tell themselves that this is all that might be done, that the country is not ready and the rest is a question for the future. We are now in that future. As long predicted, race has torn the country apart again and again.
The work required to change this once and for all is still too threatening to fully engage, even for the liberal-minded. Americans tolerate this tyranny out of a sense of apathy in the face of accumulated “facts on the ground,” sure, but also because those old myths serve the majority across the political spectrum. Rewriting them affects not simply the legal system or education system but also the ways our cities and towns are organized, how we do business, the stories that fill our screens. Ultimately, however, it represents an ego threat to who we understand ourselves to be.
There have been four crucial moments in our history that brought integration to the fore, asking how comfortable Americans were living with one another as opposed to occupying an apartheid state. Each moment offered the opportunity to remedy this, an escape from the original sin and eternal problem of race, if only we were willing to embrace it.
The first such moment was during the Continental Congress, when the tides of revolution recognized slavery as patently at odds with democracy. By all logic the birth of the Republic ought to have been the death of both slavery and the racial caste system. There were, we well know, powerful economic forces, built on a triangular trade in goods and capital, with the suffering of others at its base and idolatry of extravagant wealth at its apex, which wished for no such thing as a country of free people. The sheer audacity of a war with England pushed the two sides into union for mutual safety. The North was well on its way to abolishing slavery, but antiblack and anti-native bias had accrued for centuries. It made the most tortured of peace treaties, the first Constitution, with the slave states.
The alliance blew apart, as was presaged, during the Civil War, still the bloodiest in US history. After the war the rights of black Americans would be enshrined in the most significant revision to the Constitution in the country’s history. Yet after this de jure victory the country would reunite in ways that de facto denied blacks the rights of citizenship and saw their hard-won freedom violently suppressed in order to appease the former enemy. The enemy has always been within. If blacks were the necessary sacrifice for a quick reunion, the majority of anti-slavery Americans were willing to abandon them as a separate caste. Amnesia soon followed, setting the stage for an ongoing theater of racial awakening—I’m woke; I’m woke—played out by every generation since, but never followed through all the way.
The overthrow of this violently repressive caste system was the long-held goal of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, no sooner had the Civil Rights Act of 1964 been signed into law than both committed racists on the right and their passive enablers on the left found ways to thwart the new legal protections afforded to African Americans in the key areas of labor, housing, voting, and education.
The tools they used were old ones, sharpened over centuries of oppressive practices: political propaganda, legal attacks, manipulation of the voting system, prisons, white flight to segregated enclaves, underfunding schools, private discrimination, and a media and cultural sphere built to affirm and reinforce narratives of segregation and race. They were so effective that the language of compromise—“multiculturalism,” “diversity”—has replaced the more straightforward and honest promise of integration.
Affirmative action, a term popularized by President Kennedy in Executive Order 10925, meant simply using the power of government to ensure that employers did not discriminate against black candidates for jobs, as was then common, open practice. Unlike integration, this addressed only one area of harm. Tellingly, discrimination in the workplace remains a problem that demands attention sixty years later.
For most Americans the word integration conjures images of school busing, the tool initially deployed to meet federal desegregation requirements after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. In response, Virginia senator Harry Byrd led a campaign called, none too subtly, “Massive Resistance,” which united federal, state, and local power in thwarting desegregation. It continued into the 1970s.2 Today, people reflexively think that school busing failed or that it is something black people rejected. It did fail, in the same way a bicycle might be said to fail after someone has stuck a stick in its moving spokes.
In business a shifting marketplace has led many to embrace terms like diversity and multiculturalism. These ideas often include African Americans, but they just as often can be manipulated to produce a United Nations we-are-the-world display without tackling the real underlying problems of US society.
Reparations, another reemergent buzzword, which has gained new currency of late, deserves credit for reigniting a conversation about exactly what the present owes to the past. Reparations have a much simpler, less threatening goal than integration; their aim is not to bring African Americans into the full bounty and opportunity of US society. But I would suggest integration as a truer field in which to hold any discussion about the future of race in America because it acknowledges not only the pain that America has caused black people but also the fundamental right of black people to participate fully in America on equal terms without special pleading or explanation. In a country so expert at creating exemptions whereby the social contract does not extend to black Americans, any proposal that says it does is where the real resistance will begin.
We are at present in America’s fourth moment of full-throated national reckoning with race. Quite simply, the election of a black president, the most visible symbol of racial progress in decades, led to the backlash of white bigotry, a core of meanness that has been ever present but has now gained enough new strength to ascend the national stage without masking what it is. It wasn’t the only determinant, of course, but it was the most powerful factor in the white vote. As we grapple with the problems, large and small, of race in the wake of this, we have come to realize these problems are once again a naked threat to democracy itself. There is nothing alarmist about saying, “If we do not turn our attention to integration, this particular experiment in democracy is unlikely to survive.”
Integration, in simplest terms, means full rights of self-determination and participation for all African Americans, as well as for all other excluded groups—most obviously, indigenous peoples, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and Arab American communities—in every facet of national life. What I mean when I say self-determination is not only the right to life, liberty, and charting your own future but also the right to be respected as you are. A government and society that are on your side as a citizen, not against you.
Integration is the only remedy to the racist state and is the deepest threat to the entrenched racial order, because in order to abolish the problems and injustices of race, one must abolish the function of race. At its simplest this function serves to divide America between populations that receive the rights and respect due a citizen and those that do not. We have been talking in circles about the problem long enough. Integration goes to the root.
This is the line at which US democracy has always faltered, even though the Enlightenment architects of democracy thought they had discovered a force that was stronger than tyranny and was destined to bend history and embrace all of humanity. Race has always been the crook in the arrow of this history: no amount of theorizing, or reliance on time alone, will ever right it. Democracy will never succeed, and indeed is necessarily doomed to fail, until this false exception has been abolished.
I do not believe there is a magical formula that will solve all the problems of the twenty-first century, which have already overwhelmed the twentieth-century infrastructure and the ideas that preceded it. But I know that all answers to the question of America run through integration, which must be understood as the central challenge of our time and the foreseeable future. Although this book is about the United States, the problems are global ones. If we can’t fully address them in the birthplace of democracy, the future everywhere will remain entombed by the myths of the past.
THE SHADOW BEFORE MEMORY
They have black skins and curly hair (not that that amounts for much as other nations have the same).
—Herodotus, The Histories
WHEN WE WERE ENGLISH
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
An all-reaping fire scythed the tobacco fields in the predawn morning as Anthony and Mary Johnson battled to save their summer harvest on the eastern shore of Virginia, in a country not yet as old as they were.
The Johnsons were natives of Angola, on the southwest coast of Africa, who had arrived on the first slave ship to the country that would one day, years in the future, be America. Jamestown, the first settlement and their landing point, was founded in 1607. Twelve years later the Johnsons were landed aboard the White Lion, after the Spanish vessel stealing them to Mexico was itself captured by a tribe called Englishmen.
After working off their term of servitude, an estimated fourteen years, like the approximately 50 to 75 percent of early European immigrants who arrived to the colonies as indentured servants, the Johnsons went on to amass 250 prolific acres as free folk. Their two adult sons owned and cultivated six hundred more on the adjoining lands. The damage to the farm that morning was catastrophic, laying waste to all they had toiled for in America.
In light of such hardship, something remarkable happened. Their neighbors in Northampton County decreed the Johnsons exempt from taxes for the rest of their lives. An act of God. A human kindness. A simple demonstration of small-town decency and frontier solidarity that would be unthinkable in years to come.1
As the colony of Virginia morphed slowly into a society built on the backs of African slaves, the treatment of blacks would grow increasingly inhumane, until they were no longer even people anymore in the eyes of the law and their neighbors who wrote it, but property to be bound and held forever.
Colonial records are notoriously scattered, but blacks made up 13 to 40 percent of the colonial population of the southern settlements, and black freemen are estimated to have constituted as much as 13 percent of the black population, living largely like the Johnsons as independent farmers among their English neighbors without legal distinction.2 The expectation at the time was that they would assume the customs of their new country, acting and being treated as “black Englishmen.”
Forty years later it would be illegal for them to even live in the colony, after the Virginia Assembly passed a bill in 1691 requiring newly freed persons of color to be removed from the jurisdiction. Their mere presence was too disruptive for the system of race-based slavery being built. After all, a flourishing free population gave lie to everything that would come to be said about those with darker skin.
A decade after this first discriminatory law banning them from settling in the colony, blacks were stripped of the right to hold public office; black, indigenous, and mixed-race slaves were declared to be property; interracial marriage became a legal offense; any child born to a white woman of a black father was subjected to an indenture of thirty-one years; and all blacks were forbidden to vote—underlining the fact that in the early country, before the racial structures that would define and damn us, there existed no glint of an era when blacks could possess all the rights of English citizenship and social interaction among individual members of the various groups was governed, as one might expect, by natural law.
- "A rich, meditative account... Baker offers a wide-ranging and erudite analysis of U.S. history, politics, and culture.... This powerful call to action resonates."—Publishers Weekly
"Scholarly yet accessible, this book is a wake-up call for a country that would rather celebrate how far we've come than focus on how far we still have to go to eradicate racism. Required reading for any American serious about dismantling systemic racism."
—Kirkus (starred review)
- "Contemplating social problems related to race, identity, civil rights and more, a novelist proposes that the simplest, most radical solution is the complete social integration of all minorities."—The New York Times Book Review
- On Sale
- Jun 30, 2020
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Bold Type Books