OMNIA Q&A: Governmental Ghosts of the Past

We sat down with Michael Hanchard, Professor and incoming Chair in the Department of Africana Studies and Director of the Marginalized Populations Project, to discuss his new book, "The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy."

Friday, June 8, 2018

Michael Hanchard, Professor and incoming Chair in the Department Of Africana Studies

What was the impetus for the book?

The idea for the book came from preparation for a course that I was teaching on qualitative methods in the social sciences. I came across a citation in an article about a series of lectures by one E. A. Freeman in 1882 and went to track it down in the library of my former institution. It turns out that not only was the book available, but also some of Mr. Freeman’s papers and correspondence were available in the library’s archives. And what I tracked down turned out to be the first real documentation of a science for comparative politics.

Mr. Freeman's preoccupations were with showing—for the comparative study of political institutions—he could prove that Aryans were the state makers par excellence, and the most advanced, politically sophisticated people in the world, and that they should be in some form of political rule wherever they are. So what I wanted to do was provide this account of the discipline of comparative politics—really before it became a discipline—and how these works by Freeman seem to have been stricken from it.

How do Freeman’s writings inform your book’s discussion of the history of democracy?

One of my central claims is that democracy and inequality, seemingly antithetical to one another in discussions of modern politics, have been linked, dating all the way back to Classical Athens. Within the Athenian democracy barriers to citizenship were erected for women, slaves, and foreigners. After the Greco-Persian Wars only males with a certain ancestry were allowed to vote. So the ways in which Athens navigated democracy, by way of inclusion and exclusion, has been a theme throughout the history of democratic politics.

The histories of French, British, and U.S. politics, domestic and foreign, highlight how these democracies evolved specifically with what I deem racial and ethno-national regimes of exclusion in both colonial and what used to be called metropolitan spheres. We see this with Britain in the events leading up to the riots in Brixton in 1981. In the case of France, both during and after the French Revolution, certain laws under the Code Noir that deprived enslaved and former slaves from the Francophone Caribbean the right to basic freedoms such as voluntary association, self-possession, and suffrage. Even after the abolition of slavery in the French Caribbean, the Code Noir was deployed as a form of legal precedent in adjudicating cases involving former slaves and freed persons from St. Domingue (now Haiti) and in certain parts of the U.S. and Canada.

You say that these themes of racial hierarchy exist on a spectrum. What do you mean by that?

Historically, there have been four ways to deal with minority populations that are considered somehow problematic for a society: kill them, export them, marginalize them, or urge them to assimilate. So, the Nazis took the first option in the most concentrated, comprehensive way, as did, I might add, the German empire in their genocidal march upon the Herero and Nama peoples of what was then known as German South West Africa. But, so did the U.S. during the period of Jacksonian democracy and the Trail of Tears. Justice Taney's majority opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case—which established that whether enslaved or free, an African American could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court— makes quite clear what Taney thinks about African Americans as members of the polity.

This returns us to Freeman and his more publically oriented, non-academic writings. Freeman rues the day when a black man, whom he refers to as "one of these Simian apes," could be president of the republic. There's a perverse prescience in Freeman's commentary when we consider the Obama years and the aggressive and anxiety-driven response to his presidency by segments of white citizenry. When you have congressional representatives openly accuse Obama of being a liar, and subsequently proclaim that  the Republican-led Congress would rather that the U.S. government become inoperable than accept Obama's agenda as president of the republic it becomes clear—to me at least—that the anger and anxiety about Obama's two terms have their roots in the deep-seated conviction among certain members of the U.S. Republic that blacks should not hold the highest political office in the country and more broadly, should not be members of the polity. Well before Obama, there was the period of Reconstruction and white reaction to black federal and local officials in government.

For many white liberals and even some conservatives, recent events like Charlottesville were revelatory and for them at least, unprecedented. But Jewish, African American, Latino, and even Italian American citizens have direct historical experience with both rhetorical and formal barriers to participation in the U.S. polity and full citizenship. Charlottesville was new for a segment of the population that doesn't have a sense of the broader sweep of the U.S., so events like Charlottesville end up being treated as somehow aberrations of democracy. But they're not aberrations. Some of the questions this book addresses in this regard are "What makes a liberal state liberal? And what makes a state just a state?" There are certain practices that often liberal theorists selectively weed out in their understanding of contemporary democracy, and such unequal practices are somehow anomalous in democracy. Rather, what I'm suggesting is that they are in some sense constitutive of democratic politics.

How do immigrants factor into your discussion on democracy?

The congressional debates in the 50s and the 60s were based on the assumption that somehow the representatives of government had to resemble or be the same as the population. Even Woodrow Wilson wrote in his book, The State, that one of the prerequisites for successful model of democracy is that the society must be homogenous. Wilson was also part of the development of identification cards in the federal government to identify who was a black federal employee and who was not, because he didn't really want black federal employees interacting with white coworkers. So people were transferred out of their positions, demoted, or fired as a result. This segregationist impulse has a longstanding trajectory. And this again introduces Freeman to the equation, because Woodrow Wilson cites E.A. Freeman as a specialist on the relationship between presumed racial distinction or population heterogeneity and the practice of democracy.

France, Britain, and the U.S. each have histories of immigration and civic restrictions based on nationality and what is often referred to as race, like adapting and modifying immigration regimes in order to restrict certain populations from coming into the country. An obvious case in the U.S. is the indigenous populations and African Americans, or the Asian American Exclusion Act. In France it's certainly the Algerian war and decolonization. And in Britain, you also have decolonization. And this was all done under the auspices of modern democratic states.

How can the issues you cite be addressed?

I think in part, the U.S. has undergone several significant transformations, as has the notion of democracy. Going back to Athens, the assumption was that you could clearly distinguish between members who are citizens and people who are not. The French Revolution and Haitian revolution both bring up rhetoric and development of law based on the assumption that all men, and perhaps all men and women were created equal. So the idea that the people of a society could also be members of the polity is relatively new.

In many ways, we can think about the civil rights movement and the black freedom struggles as incomplete projects. In some ways they didn't go far enough. And I don't mean that as a critique of these social movements, but a critique of governments’ willingness to address the necessary transformations that democratic polities would need to make their societies truly egalitarian.

Do you plan to continue this research in other directions?

I'm working on a book now that examines the relationship between fascism and racial rule and looks at how the sources of terror produced under conditions of racial rule and conditions of fascism bear a lot of striking similarities. The idea stemmed from a grad course I taught last year called "Fascism and Racism: A Love Story." The class worked through the literature on fascism in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France. In the German case, for example, the first concentration camp in the 20th century was in German Southwest Africa and involved medical experiments on the Herero and Nama people. Hitler even styled the SS troop clothing on the clothing that the imperial military wore in German Southwest Africa. So these things have their own genealogies, and again, it's only a surprise to people who have had the privilege of not having to pay attention.