Letter to the New Yorker:
Nicholas Lemann’s (Books, May 25, 2020) central thesis comes as a warning at the end of his review of Walter Johnson’s new book,“The Broken Heart of America”: we should expect only “partial victories” when it comes to racial justice in America, and we ought to beware the likes of Johnson for “deflating and deriding” past progress—that pessimistic approach, he advises, “invites the hazards of defeatism.” Lemann worries that Johnson “discourages us from drawing much hope” from the recent election of an African-American president, the passage of civil-rights legislation, or the Thirteenth Amendment. But Johnson’s contribution—and the power of much of the recent scholarship on racial capitalism—is precisely to demonstrate again and again the poison that’s hidden at the heart of these and other celebrated and qualified steps forward, for example, the liberating language of the Thirteenth Amendment also contains the legal justification for convict labor, chain gangs, and eventually mass incarceration. One wonders if Lemann would urge an earlier generation to celebrate the 3/5 Clause of the Constitution as a step above 2/5. In any case, white supremacy is indeed an adaptable and slippery monster, and the real hazards to forward motion are naïveté, privilege, and a deficit of both imagination and courage.