One of my weekend rituals involves watching MSNBC’s Saturday and Sunday morning political talk show, Up, now hosted by Salon.com’s Steve Kornacki. Up provides a pretty good capsule account of the political week according to the center-left media. So I watch, occasionally find myself nodding in agreement, and just as often end up arguing with the TV.
This past weekend, Up featured a story about the annual round of Jefferson-Jackson Day spring Democratic Party fundraising dinners. The point of the story was that, in the face of an increasingly racially diverse electorate, it might be time for the Democrats to end the tradition of honoring notorious anti-Indian racist and slavery advocate Andrew Jackson. The segment was inspired by Steven Yoder’s thought-provoking article suggesting the Dems dump the tradition of honoring Jackson.
The discussion reminded me of when I worked for a national advocacy group in Washington, D.C. twenty years ago. Even back then, the Jefferson-Jackson dinners were notorious. Racial equity advocates would even privately cite the Party’s tradition of honoring Jefferson, a slave master, and Jackson, whose genocidal campaign against Native Americans resulted in the Trail of Tears, as evidence of how little could be expected from the Dems in the way of racial progress.
The general thrust of the conversation on Up was that the “inertia of heritage being played out with an Anglo-Saxon bias,” as Mississippi Party chair Rickey Cole put it, is behind the outdated practice of honoring men who were heroes of Democrats back in the bygone days when white Southerners ruled the Party. At this point, I was happy with the conversation. While I think the Democratic Party needs to do more than just re-brand its annual spring fundraising campaign to address its racist history, this, it seemed to me, was a reasonable starting point.
But then the conversation turned to the matter of those once Democratic, now Republican working class white Southerners who’ve been lured to the GOP with racist appeals. The question was raised, is continuing the tradition of honoring Jefferson and Jackson a strategy to white Southerners back? This got me muttering at the TV. I mean, come on, lure them back by white washing history? How about we lure them back by developing a policy agenda that gets real about the actual suffering and real needs of white working class people in the South?
By the time it was suggested that we ought not judge heroes of the past by our contemporary standards, the muttering turned into a full blown argument.
I object to rationalizations of the past that demand that we understand racists such as Jefferson and Jackson in their proper historical context. In that context, it is often argued, they were better than their contemporaries. Growing up in Hawai’i as I did, I often heard this said of Captain Cook who history tells us “discovered” Hawai’i and was a man of progress among white men of his time.
Seriously? Tell that to the Hawaiian of people of Cook’s time. Hell, tell that to the Hawaiian people of today, for that matter, or to the original people of Australia and any number of other lands Cook claimed for England. Cook neither “discovered” Hawai’i nor does it matter that he was less racist than other white explorers of the time from the perspective of his victims. Less racist or not, he was racist enough to start a colonial process that would eventually result in a near genocide.
The same is true of Jefferson and Jackson. They weren’t better than their contemporaries if you consider Indians and black people among them. And there was popular resistance to slavery and native genocide, including the Jacksonian policy of “Indian Removal,” among whites of that time, even white policy makers. But, regardless, how they compared to their contemporaries matters not at all to those who were their victims. The descendants of those victims deserve to have Jefferson’s and Jackson’s actions viewed in light of their actual consequences, then and now, and not just in terms of how a racist settler culture judged them while they lived.
Today’s equivalents of men like Andrew Jackson are mowing down rain forests and the indigenous people who live in them in order to raise beef to put into fast food burgers, contributing to preventable illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes that constitute more than 40 percent of Medicare and Medicaid costs, before lobbying against these entitlements because they don’t want to pay the necessary taxes. How will history judge them?
Democracy demands that we put the concerns of the people of today who are living on the downside of the unjust power relations originally established by dead white men like Jefferson and Jackson ahead of whether or not those dead white men happen to be heroes to those living on the upside of those same power relations. It’s time for the Democratic Party to do more than change its branding. It needs to change its perspective.