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The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy review: necessary chronicle of US racist history

Robert P Jones, founder and president of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), holds a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory University. He is a son of the south, pained by the nexus between Christianity and slavery. In White Too Long, published in 2020, he wrote of church stained-glass windows that paid homage to Confederate generals, Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The deadly shooting at a Dollar General in Florida last week was just one more reminder that the past is always with us.

In his new book, Jones draws a straight line between religion and European migration to North America and slavery and the subjugation of Indigenous people. He identifies and repeatedly criticizes the “doctrine of discovery”, as prime culprit and enabler.

Enunciated in 15th-century papal decrees, adopted in 1823 as part of US common law through the supreme court case Johnson v M’Intosh, the discovery doctrine offered theological and legal justification for conquest and its aftermath. Jones extensively quotes Robert Miller, a law professor at Arizona State University and a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe.

“In essence, the doctrine provided that newly arrived Europeans immediately and automatically acquired legally recognized property rights over the inhabitants without knowledge or consent of the indigenous peoples,” Miller wrote, in 2012.

Jones adds: “Despite its near-total absence from white educational curricula … Native American scholars have been highlighting the impact of the doctrine of discovery for at least half a century.”

He meticulously details events that further scar US history. It is a first-rate chronicle of horror. Jones lays out the lynchings of three Black circus workers in Minnesota, in 1920, and of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. He recounts the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, the destruction of “Black Wall Street” and the deaths of 300 African Americans.

He also delves in detail into the US government-sanctioned execution of 38 Dakota males in Mankato, Minnesota, in December 1862. It remains the single largest event of its kind in US history. Abraham Lincoln played a central role.

On the page, Jones lays out his pathway to a “shared future”. He advocates “reparations” for the descendants of enslaved Black people and argues for “restitution” to Native Americans.

“This is a tall order,” he acknowledges. But he remains undeterred, writing: “We cannot shrink before the difficulty of the task … the creativity of our solutions is directly proportional to, and a measure of, the strength of our convictions.”

With a significant exception – support from three-quarters of African Americans – the public holds a negative view of reparations, according to a 2021 survey. Nearly 70% are opposed, including 80% of whites, 65% of Asians, 58% of Hispanics and 49% of Democrats and Democratic-leaners. That’s a lot of hearts and minds to persuade.

This fall, the Democratic-dominated California legislature will consider a reparations plan. After the US supreme court rejection of race-based affirmative action, and a similar rejection by Californians in 2020, the legislature may want to tread lightly.

Jones can be swept away by his convictions. In 2016, in The End of White Christian America, he wrote an “obituary” and recited a “benediction” for what he perceived as the passing of white Protestantism. To say the least, he jumped the gun.

Donald Trump’s election showed that primacy lost is not the same as extinction. Even in its lessened state and amid the rise of religious “nones”, Christianity remains a force in American life. As mainstream Protestantism slides and younger evangelicals leave the fold, the landscape of Sunday morning is being reshaped.

“American megachurches are thriving by poaching flocks,” an Economist headline blared. “Denominations are out. Brand identity and good vibes are in.” There is plenty to like about community and ice cream. Doctrinal orthodoxies have not fared well in the marketplace of US religion.

Jones has refused to fully quit “defund the police”, the protest slogan that flourished after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer in May 2020 but which Republicans predictably seized on to depict Democrats as soft on crime. Jones has also tweaked James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist, for emphasizing class over race.

“We can’t continue to paper over racial injustice with economic policy,” Jones wrote in 2021, in the aftermath of the Republican Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in the Virginia governor’s race. Riffing off Carville’s famous 1992 campaign message for Bill Clinton, about the economy, Jones delivered his own: “‘It’s the culture, stupid’ – or less euphemistically, ‘It’s the white supremacy, stupid’ – must be the new mantra of political analysts today.”

That’s a lousy bumper-sticker. Besides that, the data reflects that inflation, jobs, the economy and healthcare are the most pressing priorities for American voters. Only 6% place discrimination top of their list of concerns. By the numbers, it looks like Carville got it right.

Jones also implicitly criticized Carville for calling the “defund the police” movement “lunacy”, writing: “I agree with Carville that ‘defund the police’ has been unhelpful. It’s neither a savvy political slogan nor an accurate depiction of what most police reform advocates actually want to do.”

Not a “savvy political slogan” and “unhelpful” are understatements. Last year, after Republicans took back the US House, James Clyburn of South Carolina, a member of Democratic leadership, put it this way: “‘Defund the police’ is killing our party and we’ve got to stop it.”

New York City and San Francisco have experienced major exoduses. Safe streets and thriving tax bases are necessities for vibrant urban centers. Heading for 2024, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are locked in polling dead heats. Despite his many indictments, Trump retains traction. Racial resentments helped propel him into the White House in 2016. They may do so again.

Source: The Guardian