Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet




July 30, 2009

It used to be that a public figure could immediately lose his public standing by openly and avowedly making unmistakable white supremacist-racist remarks in the public domain.

Or at least it was, for a while.

In 1987, in an interview with Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline program, Los Angeles Dodger general manager Al Campanis was asked why there were so few African-American baseball managers and no general managers. African-Americans, Mr. Campanis replied “may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.” (In the same interview, Mr. Campanis also said that African-Americans “don't have the buoyancy” to be good swimmers.) Following the ensuing media and national uproar, Mr. Campanis was forced to resign his position with the Dodgers, and never lived down the controversy.

A year later, CBS football commentator and independent betting handicapper Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder told a Washington D.C. television reporter that African-Americans were superior athletes because they were bred that way in slavery. “The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way,” Mr. Snyder said, “because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. This goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trading, the owner — the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.” CBS immediately fired Mr. Snyder, and he dropped from public view thereafter.

That was then, folks. This is now.

This month, MSNBC national commentator, conservative columnist, former presidential candidate, and former Richard Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show to talk on the subject of affirmative action and to Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court nomination. Mr. Buchanan opposes Ms. Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent.

The subject of the overwhelming historic, um, whiteness of the United States Supreme Court came up, and Ms. Maddow asked of Mr. Buchanan “Why do you think is that of the 110 Supreme Court justices we've had in this country, 108 of them have been white?” In answer, Mr. Buchanan said that he thought it was because “white men were 100 percent of the people that wrote the Constitution, 100 percent of the people that signed the Declaration of Independence, 100 percent of people who died at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Probably close to 100 percent of the people who died at Normandy. This has been a country built basically by white folks in this country.”

This is a bigoted conclusion based upon flawed facts.

I don’t know the racial breakdown of the soldiers killed during the battles at Gettysburg or the Normandy D-Day invasion and, frankly, I don’t care. Gettysburg and Normandy were portions of major wars (the Civil War and World War II) fought in hundreds of battles over several years each, in which large numbers of American (or Federal, in the case of the Civil War) soldiers died who were not of white descent. To even have to re-publish an accounting of the numbers of those dead, for the sake of answering Mr. Buchanan’s assertions, defames the memory of the thousands of non-white soldiers who died in service to America.

We will do so only in the case of the investment of Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Mr. Buchanan most demonstrates his ignorance. The Union Army attack on Vicksburg was part of General Ulysses Grant’s overall strategy of clearing the Mississippi River of all Confederate forts in order to both isolate the western Confederacy from the eastern and to free the river for federal shipping down to New Orleans and the gulf. While Vicksburg was the key to Confederate control of the middle Mississippi, the strong Confederate positions north and south of that town had to be cleared out for Mr. Grant’s strategy to be completed.

On June 6, 1863, Confederate troops attacked a Federal force at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana just north up the river from Vicksburg. The Federal forces included the all-Black regiments of the 9th and the 11th Louisiana and the 1st Mississippi. The 9th Louisiana was driven back on its earthworks and afterwards, according to “A History Of The Negro Troops In The War Of The Rebellion, 1861-1865” by Civil War veteran George Washington Williams, “a desperate struggle … ensued, wherein Negro recruits and veteran rebels engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict. Bayonets were freely used, and many of each force were transfixed, and hand-to-hand conflicts with clubbed muskets and swords were numerous.”

The Confederates were repulsed but not without enormous casualties to the Federal side. Mr. Williams quotes the official record of the Millikens Bend battle that “of the enlisted men [in the Negro force], one hundred and twenty-three were killed, one hundred and eighty-two wounded, and one hundred and thirteen missing.”

Captain Matthew M. Miller, one of the white officers who commanded the African-American troops (Black commissioned officers were not then allowed by the U.S. Army) wrote later that “Our regiment (Company I, Ninth Louisiana) had about three hundred men in the fight. … We had about forty men killed in the regiment and eighty wounded, so you can judge of what part of the fight my company sustained. I never felt more grieved and sick at heart than when I saw how many brave soldiers had been slaughtered—one with six wounds, all the rest with two or three, none less than two wounds. Two of my colored sergeants were killed, both brave, noble men, always prompt, vigilant, and ready for the fray. I never more wish to hear the expression, ‘The Niggers won’t fight.’ Come with me, a hundred yards from where I sit, and I can show you the wounds that cover the bodies of sixteen as brave, loyal and patriotic soldiers as ever drew bead on a rebel.”

“I can say [of the African-American troops],” Mr. Miller added, “that I never saw a braver company of men in my life. Not one of them offered to leave his place until ordered to fall back. I went down to the hospital, three miles, today to see the wounded. Nine of them were there, two having died of their wounds. A boy I had cooking for me came and begged a gun when the rebels were advancing, and took his place with the company; and when we retook the breastworks I found him badly wounded, with one gunshot and two bayonet wounds. A new recruit I had issued a gun to the day before the fight was found dead with a firm grasp on his gun, the bayonet of which was broken in three pieces. So they fought and died, defending the cause that we revere. They met death coolly, bravely; not rashly did they expose themselves, but all were steady and obedient to orders.”

In the equally horrific May 27th attack on the Confederate stronghold at Port Hudson, Louisiana, also a part of Mr. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard regiment had 24 enlisted men killed and the 3rd Louisiana Native Guard regiment suffered 10 killed and 38 wounded. (My great-grandfather served in the 1st Louisiana, but did not take part in the Port Hudson fighting.)

So much for Mr. Buchanan’s ignorant statement that “100 percent” of the soldiers who died “at Vicksburg” where white men.

That brings us to Mr. Buchanan’s contention that “white men” comprised “100 percent” of the people who wrote the Constitution and signed the Declaration of Independence. Certainly that is true, but we’re not quite certain what point it makes, or why it should justify Mr. Buchanan’s defense of the fact that more than 98 percent of the United States Supreme Court Justices down the years were chosen from the ranks of white men.

White women were second class citizens in colonial America, not allowed by law either to vote or to serve as delegates to the various governing bodies, so their absence from the list of Declaration of Independence signatories can be attributed to the white male tradition of shutting them out, not to any lack of courage or revolutionary zeal on the white women’s part. Mr. Buchanan’s argument justifying exclusion of women from the Supreme Court Justice ranks for so many years amounts to saying that two hundred years of post-Revolution discrimination against women is justified by some thousands of years of pre-Revolution discrimination against women in Britain and the American colonies.

The same applies in spades (pun intended) when it comes to Mr. Buchanan’s justification of the long lack of Supreme Court justices of color. The largest non-white minority during America’s history and virtually the only one at all during the colonial years, free African-Americans had few political rights in the pre-Revolution colonies, and enslaved African-Americans had no rights at all. In many parts of the colonies and later in the states until the Civil War, enslaved Africans were forbidden to learn to read, with violations punishable by whippings and, on occasion, even death. For Mr. Buchanan to now imply some lack of civic responsibility by African-Americans by not, somehow, forcing themselves to the table (by petitions or sit-in demonstrations, is he suggesting?) to sign the Declaration or help write the Constitution would be bizarre, at the least, were it not for the fact that it rubs raw many historic wounds.

And, of course, Mr. Buchanan’s strange reasoning and contentions that many of the Declaration signers as well as the principle Constitution writer had the freedom to make such choices precisely because they were actively denying such freedom to African-Americans. There were 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Of the 21 who signed from the five Southern colonies (Georgia, Maryland, Virginia, and the two Carolinas), 15 were holders of slaves.

The Constitution had many authors and some of them were ardently antislavery. New York and Pennsylvania’s Gouverneur Morris, one of the five men on the Constitutional Convention committee that actually wrote the document, argued at the Convention that: "Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The houses in [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves that cover the rice swamps of South Carolina....The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice."

But Virginia’s James Madison, upon whose writings the Constitution was largely based and who was thus considered by contemporaries as “the Father of the Constitution,” held some 100 slaves himself on his Montpellier plantation. Had Mr. Madison, later the fourth President of the United States, been forced to walk through the fields all day plowing, planting, weeding, “cropping”, and curing the tobacco that was the plantation’s main source of income, it is almost certain that he would have been too weary in the evenings to write the soaring words that make up a portion of the Federalist Papers.

To agree with Mr. Buchanan’s contention that “this has been a country built basically by white folks,” you have to substantially alter and amend any common understanding of the term “build.” But that's another discussion, too long for this column.

Meanwhile, that Mr. Campanis and Mr. Snyder can be skewered and sacked 20 years ago for comments far less bigoted than Mr. Buchanan, while Mr. Buchanan sails on untouched, without taint or scratch, is perhaps the saddest and most sobering comment on our current racial climate and times.

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