Lincoln overcame a belief in ethnic cleansing to imagine an interracial future (Notes on my racism, part 4)

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The latest New York Review of Books has a great piece by James McPherson about Eric Foner’s new biography of Abraham Lincoln that emphasizes the transformation of Lincoln’s view of blacks, especially during the Civil War. The piece is behind a fire wall, but let me summarize its main points:

Lincoln was born and grew up in strongly pro-slavery country (KY, IN) and it is a sign of the majesty of his mind that he maintained a hatred of slavery through his youth and adulthood. Slavery was evil, he said often.

That belief was compatible in his mind with the belief that blacks were not the equals of whites, and indeed that slavery as an institution must be tolerated for the sake of peace, though of course he said as a failed Senate candidate in 1858 that he would “place it [slavery] where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction…”

Even as president, Lincoln subscribed to a policy of ethnic cleansing, or transfer, to use the phrases we use today. He was for the “colonization” of blacks, their return to Africa (Liberia).

And yet, according to Foner, Lincoln “began during the last two years of the war to imagine an interracial future for the United States.”

This mental process occurred through a remarkable series of events. During the war, 100,000 black soldiers made up about 10 percent of the Union forces, and Lincoln was staggered by their commitment, and saw the immorality of colonization in that light. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 reflected these new views. “I should be damned in time & eternity,” Lincoln wrote (boy, presidents knew how to write once!) if he returned those men to slavery. 

Early on, Lincoln had respected racist public attitudes toward blacks, explaining that one had to respect a bulwark of public opinion, and change it slowly. “There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free colored people to remain with us.” Toward the end of his life he became more impatient with these attitudes. He hosted blacks at the White House during the second inaugural and endorsed the idea of black suffrage. At a speech on the White House lawn after Appomattox, he had an interracial audience.

He had, Foner writes, “developed a deep sense of compassion for the slaves he had helped to liberate, and a concern for their fate.” 

I offer Lincoln’s progress of course as a reflection of Jewish attitudes towards Palestinians and Arabs, and my own racism. In my life I have– through no virtue of my own, but because of social movements– overcome engrained prejudices against blacks, gays, women, even Irish- and Italian-Americans. I’m not saying I’m perfect (nor that I wish to remove considerations of cultural difference from my thinking; I don’t), but it is simply a fact that I have watched myself change dramatically due to changing societal attitudes. Some of my prejudice had to do with elitist Jewish attitudes I got growing up in an environment of high intellectual achievement. And I am sure that many others whites and Jews have overcome similar training in their modern lives. It’s a good thing, as Martha Stewart says.

The next hurdle is anti-Arab prejudice. Many in our country hate Muslims. The federal prison population is 6 percent Muslim, but the percentage is ten times that, 65 percent, in new and horrifying CMUs, or Communication Management Units, where prisoners are granted very limited contact with their families (as Alexis Agathocleous of the Center for Constitutional Rights explained in Manhattan the other night). I have wrestled with anti-Islamic prejudice in myself, I have struggled with a disdain for Arabs related to the Jewish community’s largely vicious view of Arabs borne by the attachment to Zionism–which has had to justify the demolition and dismissal of Arab political desires and hopes by demonizing these people as subhuman.

I think we can all learn from Lincoln’s progress, during our own two military occupations of Muslim countries. 

Another particular echo for me in Lincoln is his view that slavery had to be tolerated because so many were committed to it. On a similar basis, I have often supported the existence of the Jewish state– because millions of people believe in Zionism, and indeed international law granted a legal basis for that belief. I don’t recant that support here, if only because of the historical parallel, the Civil War; slavery was ended with a massive bloodletting that created hostility and bitterness for generations. I continue to hope that a peaceful transition to equal rights can be achieved in Israel and Palestine. But I would argue that that transition is largely mental; it will involve American Jews interrogating their attitudes towards Arabs and Palestinians and trying to give the goddamn news to their Israeli cousins. My money is on young Jews, to approach their Arab peers on an equal footing, remembering that our country has seen dramatic advances, all brought upon us by the revolutionary assertion that all men are created equal.

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