Janine Jackson interviewed Emory’s Carol Anderson about democracy vs. white supremacy for the November 26, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson, FAIR.org

Janine Jackson: Those sifting for signs of critical weakness in the prosecution argument in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial are missing the forest for the trees. We ask the law to deliver us from injustice. But remember why people were protesting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the first place—to protest the inadequacy of US systems and institutions to protect or to value Black life.

The head-spinning outrage of this case, from police thanking Rittenhouse for roaming around with an illegal assault rifle, up through his acquittal of the murders he committed, may make it seem that what we used to quaintly call “race relations” have gone to a whole other level.

justice with an old VHS effect

But it’s important to remember that the roots of these events, along with other things we see happening, are entwined deeply throughout this country’s history. And as our guest’s work reminds us, we aren’t just talking about the relationship between Black and white Americans. We’re talking about the relationship between Americans and democracy.

Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African-American Studies at Emory University, and the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide and One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. She joins us now by phone from Atlanta. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Carol Anderson.

Carol Anderson: Thank you so much for having me.

Guardian: White supremacists declare war on democracy and walk away unscathed

Guardian (11/10/21)

JJ: I’ve been hearing the term “turning point.” And I want to believe it. But if we are to be at a turning point, seeing where we’ve been can show us what we need to do, and what will be insufficient. And that’s why I wanted to talk about your most recent piece for the Guardian, whose headline really encapsulates the lesson: “White Supremacists Declare War on Democracy and Walk Away Unscathed.”

You’re talking, yes, about the January 6 insurrection, and the response to that. But you talk about it as an echo of actions and responses, going really all the way back to the beginning of the country.

CA: Absolutely. And what struck me—and this really began to come out for me as I was working on my latest bookThe Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America

JJ: Oh boy.

CA: —was the way that white supremacists were willing to hold the United States of America hostage in order to advance their white supremacist ideology, in order to embed it into the bedrock foundation of this nation. And that they were willing to destroy the United States if they didn’t get their way. And for that, they should have been held accountable.

But instead, they were revered. Instead, they were allowed to walk away. And that lack of accountability, over and over and over, only emboldens the white supremacists, and puts the United States of America and its ideas and this democracy at risk.

JJ: You talk about how even during the War of Independence, we’re talking about South Carolina, take us back to that. Because I don’t believe that people—I think people think, yes, I remember the Civil War. But it goes before that.

CA: It goes before that. And so you had the British, who said that they were going to hit the soft underbelly of the revolution, which was the South. And the British hit Georgia, and just took Savannah, boom, like that. And then they were headed up to South Carolina. And George Washington sent his emissary, his aide-de-camp, down to South Carolina, to plead with the government there to arm the enslaved. Because South Carolina did not have enough white men to take on that 8,000-strong British force that was coming for the invasion.

And South Carolina looked at John Laurens—and John Laurens is a son of the South. He is a South Carolinian. And they looked at him, and they were outraged. They talked about how horrified they were. They were absolutely alarmed that he would even suggest this, that this would be coming from Washington, this would be coming from the Continental Congress. To try to arm the enslaved, just because the British were invading? No way, because whites had deployed white men to act as the militia to control that enslaved population, that the government had defined as the threat.

So this is in the middle of a war, and the threat are Black people. You know, they began to talk about surrendering to the British, and trying to declare their neutrality in this war, just so they would not have to arm the enslaved.

And so think about that. They were willing to walk away from the United States of America, the thing that folks had been fighting for, the thing that folks had been dying for, just so they could continue to enslave human beings, enslave Black people.

JJ: And so it’s very meaningful, then, that after that fact, there was no kind of comeuppance. There was no kind of, you know, you didn’t have our back there; you weren’t really with us. There was no kind of assessment or real consequences for South Carolina.

CA: No consequences. There was some grumbling, like, ugh, they didn’t even fight. But the thing is that they were fully welcomed into the halls of power. They were fully welcomed into the Constitutional Convention where, again, they flexed their Southern muscles to demand that the bedrock document for the United States of America, the Constitution, would have embedded in it inordinate power for slaveholders, for the enslavers. And that it would continue to protect slavery. And they kept making clear, we will walk away unless we get what we want.

And so you had folks like James Madison, who was the architect of the Constitution, and Rufus King out of Massachusetts, who were beside themselves, going, we had to give in. Because the United States of America was worth it. They were willing to destroy the United States of America unless they got their way.

Preston Brooks assaulting Charles Sumner

And so their way included 20 additional years of the Atlantic slave trade. It included the Fugitive Slave Clause. And it included the Three-Fifths Clause that added additional Congressional representation to the Southern states in Congress by counting their enslaved people as three-fifths for population numbers. And it was that Three-Fifths Clause that added an additional 18 to 20 seats to the South in Congress, where they then flexed their muscle again. And for all of that, no consequences.

JJ: Can you just take a note about the beating up? You know, we’re not talking just haranguing. What they did to get their way, it would blow minds today.

CA: Joanne Freeman wrote a brilliant book, Field of Blood, where she lays out how the South bullied and beat on Northern Congressional representatives to ensure that language and bills that would try to curtail slavery did not see the light of day. So this led up to the caning, actually, of Charles Sumner, where he was beaten on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks out of South Carolina. No consequences.

JJ: Right.

Carol Anderson

CA: And what this does, is white supremacy keeps bullying, keeps beating, keeps threatening the viability of the United States of America. White supremacy cannot be satisfied, cannot be sated. There’s not enough that you can give it to make it go, OK, I’m fine. We’re cool. Instead, without having consequences for that horrific behavior, it only emboldens. And this is what leads us into the Civil War.

JJ: Absolutely. And so I hope that listeners know about the Civil War and the Confederacy.

But let’s skip, if we would, to the way they were treated. Again, we’re talking about repercussions for aggression. We have folks who are so emboldened that they’re declaring war on the United States. Then when they lose, again they get folded back in, right?

CA: Oh, oh, oh! I mean, so imagine killing over 600,000 American troops, costing the US billions of dollars, trying to get the British and the French to hop into the war to fight against the United States of America. And after the South loses the war, then you have Andrew Johnson, as president, granting amnesty to the Confederate leaders. Because the whole point for Johnson was that this was a war to keep the Union together. And so  you don’t have the consequences for those who waged war against the United States of America. These are traitors.

And instead what happens is that you get not only this folding in of these traitors into the United States of America, but you get then this narrative that comes through in the textbooks, this “lost cause,” that this war was about Southern heritage, and it was about states’ rights. It wasn’t about slavery. And that this was the War of Northern Aggression, when it was the South that fired on Fort Sumter because Lincoln had won the election, and his platform was that he did not want to see slavery extended out West. Not that he wanted to abolish slavery, but that he didn’t want to have it extended out West.

And that’s what I mean about white supremacy cannot be sated. White supremacy cannot be sated, and particularly if it does not have to face the consequences of the damage that it does to this nation, to American democracy.

JJ: The importance of that narrative being allowed to continue and to grow can’t be overstated. But I also wanted to note how you point out that folding those Confederates back into the US, that was also helped by the Supreme Court undoing decisions that Congress had made, and we’re still living with that as well.

Ku Klux Klan uniform (Wikimedia)

CA: Absolutely. So the Reconstruction Congress had put in place, basically, the 13th, the 14th and the 15th Amendments: 13th abolishing slavery; the 14th providing for birthright citizenship, due process and equal protection under the law; and the 15th providing that no state shall abridge the right to vote on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.

Congress also passed acts to ban white domestic terrorism, because of the rise of the Klan and the violence of the Klan and its ilk, such as the Knights of the White Camellia and the Red Shirts, were raining down on Black folk. And so Congress had tried to provide those protections.

And you had the US Supreme Court going through, in decision after decision, and undermining every one of those protections. And what that did was it allowed the rise of that white supremacist regime to go on unchecked, and rain down its violence and its discriminatory actions that, again, undermined American democracy. This is where we get the rise of Jim Crow, and this is where we get the rise of lynching.

JJ: And it shows the intertwining of law and this vigilantism. I mean, it’s not just the narrative of the lost cause and the War of Northern Aggression that’s been allowed to go unchecked. But we also have these laws that tell people that somehow the law has their back.

And that brings us back to January 6 at the US Capitol, where people are believing that they are supporting something, believing that they are also continuing some historical thrust. And they have reason to believe that, yeah? And then also the consequences here—again, folks may say, this is so surprising. This is an echo of what’s happened before.

CA: This is an echo of what happened before. Because what this was about at its base was the demonization of voters of color. So you had the Republicans laying out that the election was stolen from Trump in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit, cities where you have sizable Black populations. So when they say if you only count the legal votes, he won. Which meant, if you don’t count the votes from Black folk in the city, he won.

Gallows erected on Capitol Hill by pro-Trump militants

Military Times (1/6/21;  photo: Sarah Sicard)

And it is that anger, that Black folks and Asian Americans and Native Americans and Hispanics did not overwhelmingly vote for an avowed white supremacist, that you get this attack on the US Capitol, on American democracy, as Congress is doing its work of certifying the election by counting the electoral votes. And where they’re, “Hang Mike Pence,” and they’re hunting for Nancy Pelosi. As one of the assailants said, they wanted to drag her where her head was hitting every one of the steps coming down out of that Capitol. They saw themselves as patriots.

But what they were doing is assaulting American democracy for white supremacy. That should have been stunning enough. But instead what we get is the January 6 Commission taking months upon months to come into being. And then its subpoenas being like, Ha! Who cares about a subpoena?

JJ: Right.

CA: Where you’re getting the assailants who went into the Capitol, who defecated in there, beat on police officers. We got the first real sentence of 41 months. But generally, you were getting probation. You were getting, you can go on vacation. Uh, wow.

JJ: Wow. Yeah.

CA: Wow. When you don’t have consequences for assaulting American democracy, it empowers and it emboldens white supremacy to assault and attack it again.

JJ: Many people think of history as moving, if not smoothly, still directionally, you know? Like, we’re still sort of stepping towards equality among races, with a few steps back. But part of that narrative is: You don’t fight for equality. Equality is about everybody getting along, you know? And so Black people being angry is part of the problem. There’s this narrative confusion about what it takes to make history, and that somehow history is going to happen even if I don’t do anything.

Frederick Douglass

CA: And as Frederick Douglass said, power never concedes anything without a demand. It never has and it never will. To me, the story of America is that we are an aspirational nation. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” That’s the aspiration.

And you have those that confuse that aspiration with achievement. Like, we have overcome? When in fact it has been Black folk who have been fighting to make that aspiration real. It has been those who have been marginalized in the society, those who have faced the brunt of the worst that white supremacy has to offer. And who believed in America enough to fight for it—not fight against it, but to fight for it.

JJ: I’ve been thinking of this Raymond Williams quote. “To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.” I find it difficult to grapple with right now, but in your work, you talk about imagining. You talk about, what if Reconstruction had actually honored the citizenship of 4 million freed people?

CA: Yes.

JJ: What if Brown v. Board of Education were really honored?

CA: Wow.

JJ: Being able to imagine, to envision, that’s the way to get to hope. That’s the only way. Isn’t it?

CA: Yes, because it is in that imagining that you know what you’re fighting for. That you don’t look around you and say, well, this is the way it is, and so it’s not going to get any better. It is in that imagining—I think about the enslaved. They had to imagine what freedom looked like. Wow. Imagine hundreds of years of being enslaved, and you imagine freedom, and that freedom is a possibility for you and your family, for those that look like you. That’s powerful.

It is those who came under Jim Crow who imagined what a system looked like that did not have Jim Crow as its operating principle. We have to have that power of imagination now. It looks really, really bad. But when we imagine what our future could be, and what our present could be, and we organize and we mobilize, we vote for that future. Wow. Wow.

JJ: Carol Anderson is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of African-American Studies at Emory University. You can find her important article, “White Supremacists Declare War on Democracy and Walk Away Unscathed,” on TheGuardian.com. Thank you so much for joining us this week, Carol Anderson.

CA: Oh, thank you so much for having me. Thank you.