Podcast: Settler colonialism, the insurrections of the 1960s, and today


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

In this episode of Who Belongs? we speak with Gerald Horne, Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, and author of more than 30 books. Professor Horne has written on a spectrum of issues and events including the early settler colonial period of the US, the Haitian and Mexican revolutions, labor politics, civil rights, profiles of WEB Du Bois and revolutionary artist Paul Robeson, just to name a few.

His most recent book is The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century. In our interview we focus the discussion on the uprisings of the 1960s, structural racism, and the transformative currents of today.


Gerald Horne: There are some very dangerous and ominous signals that I think we would be derelict to ignore. I'm not the only person or certainly not the first person to raise the specter of the F-word or fascism, but it does tend to creep in on little cat feet.

Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs?, a podcast from the O&B Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, host of the podcast, along with Erfan Moradi, a research fellow at our institute.

Erfan Moradi: In this episode, we speak with Gerald Horne, Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and author of more than thirty books. Professor Horne has written on a spectrum of issues and events including the early settler colonial period of the U.S., the revolutions of Haiti and Mexico, labor politics, civil rights, profiles of W. E. B. Du Bois and revolutionary artist Paul Robeson, just to name a few.

Marc Abizeid: His most recent book is The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century. In our interview, we focus the discussion on the uprisings of the 1960s, structural racism, and the transformative currents of today.

Erfan Moradi: Here was our conversation.

Marc Abizeid: So we just wanted to begin by asking you to try to make those connections between what happened in Watts, or the conditions that led to the uprising in Watts in 1965, to the later uprisings — I think in like 1967 was when they had over a hundred uprisings — and today.

Gerald Horne: Well, I would say that the through-line connecting 1965, 1967, '68, all the way up to 2020, is the question of what could euphemistically be called police misconduct, others might call it police terror. Certainly the trigger in August 1965 in South Los Angeles was this idea that Black people were being roughhoused and manhandled by the police. And certainly the events of May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis with George Floyd being lynched on camera suggests that that particular perception has not been extinguished. But of course, in some sense, the question of the role of the police is just the tip of the iceberg. As I try to suggest in the book that you referenced [The Fire This Time], there are other issues as well, including unemployment, including racial discrimination on the job or racial discrimination when it comes to being employed, including racist discrimination with regard to housing for example, including poor transport options, including food deserts even though that was not the term that was necessarily used in 1965 but is certainly the term today. Obviously we're talking about an entire panoply of ills, and if we had sufficient time, I'd probably try to trace it all the way back to the origins of settler colonialism hundreds of years ago which was accompanied by the mass enslavement of Africans and the liquidation of the Indigenous population and the empowering of a mostly European settler population.

Erfan Moradi: Yeah, you describe this panoply or this conjuncture in some of your works as class collaboration between settler colonizers and what in one book you term as "militarized identity politics." Can you tell us a little bit more about this history of the formation of Whiteness in the settler colonial context?

Gerald Horne: Well, actually, I'm glad you asked that question because just days ago my latest book was published, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century. What I try to show in this book is the precursor to the settlement established in what the English called Virginia in 1607. And what I also tried to show, and this [is] really a continuation of my book on the seventeenth century, is that we really need to think more carefully and more deeply about how and why it was that those who were warring on the shores of Europe — English versus Irish, English versus Scots, English versus Welsh, British versus German, German versus Pole, Pole versus Russian, Northern Italian versus Southern Italian, French Catholic versus French Protestant, Croat versus Serb, Serb versus Kosovar, Northern Macedonian versus Greek — all of a sudden when they crossed the Atlantic in a rebranding that would make Madison Avenue blush, they're all rebranded as "White".

Gerald Horne: And this was the improvisational "genius," if you like, of the London elite, which in the 1500s was in the midst of a religious conflict with the Catholic powers. The Protestants were scrappy underdogs; unlike the Spanish, they could not afford to have a religious qualifier for settlement. And so therefore improvisationally, they moved towards pan-Europeanism somehow reconciling all of these diverse groups that had been warring on the shores of Europe, particularly I might say English Protestant versus Irish Catholic. But also interestingly enough, the English had expelled the Jewish population in 1291, but by the 1500s, they were under the gun and were more willing to consider having English-Jewish settlers, or I should say Jewish settlers of any national origin, unlike the Spanish who of course during that time were undergoing an inquisition whereby if you did not profess the one true faith — that is to say Catholicism — you could be forced into exile in the best case, and liquidated in the worst case, and I guess the medium range would be simply tortured.

Gerald Horne: So this was a kind of militarized identity politics, because what happens is that [in] this new identity that's called Whiteness, these diverse and disparate ethnic groups in Europe are able to reconcile on the basis of seizing the land of the Native Americans and stocking that land with [the] free labor of enslaved Africans. And certainly it involves class collaboration, that is to say that oftentimes these settler projects were funded by investors. I talk about that in some detail with regard to the original settlement — excuse me — the most successful settlement, I should say, in Virginia 1607, because of course you had the failed settlement in Roanoke a few decades earlier. But even in Roanoke and certainly in the 1607 settlement, you have the rich basically sponsoring those who are not so rich, and they both have this mutual benefit or mutual projection of seeking to benefit from their collaboration. And of course it reaches a kind of zenith, as I say in my book in the seventeenth century, in 1676 with Bacon's Rebellion where the settlers revolt against London in Virginia because they feel that London is not moving with sufficient audacity and aggression to seize the land from the Native Americans and disperse it to the settlers. And of course, Nathaniel Bacon was a man of means; those who were following him were not.

Gerald Horne: And in some ways that class collaboration helps to shed light on the election of 2016, where the faux billionaire got sixty-three million votes and it's mathematically imprecise, if not impossible, for sixty-three million to be considered part of the one-percent of a nation of three hundred and thirty million. So obviously that sixty-three million comprises predominantly Euro-Americans of diverse backgrounds. And so what then that leads the anti-Trump forces to do is to engage in torturing of the numbers to try to show that what I just said is not accurate, although I don't see how you can get sixty-three million to fit into the one-percent. I mean, the country's just not that large. So in other words, the state of affairs, absence and acute analysis forces even those who are opposed to the state of affairs to try to rationalize it, justify it, and ultimately, I'm afraid to say, be pulverized as a result.

Marc Abizeid: There's a lot to unpack there, but I would just say, given all of this background that you provided, how did that bring us to the conditions that led to the uprising in Watts, and the compounded racism and the different dynamics and tensions between different racial groups in L.A., And then how that erupted on the streets?

Gerald Horne: Well, I'm sure I don't have to inform you that the enslaved Africans were not necessarily considered beneficiaries of the Bill of Rights when it was introduced in the late eighteenth century, nor was the Indigenous population for that matter. That is to say, to take one amongst many, there was no Second Amendment right to bear arms for the Indigenous population or the Africans. In fact, it was a strategic objective of the rulers and the elites to make sure that these folks did not have arms. And you can just go from there to just about every other benefit. I mean, for example, take the Cherokees for example, who tried to assimilate: they wore the clothing of the settlers, they oftentimes converted to Christianity, they had an alphabet and published newspapers which are now a rich source for histories, they even went so far as to enslave Africans which led to them being dubbed "civilized." But they still had to go. They still were forced to evacuate the southeast quadrant of what is now the United States of America on the Trail of Tears for Oklahoma, which was supposed to be part of their land "as long as the rivers shall flow and the grass shall grow."

Gerald Horne: So, I don't think I have to take you from the late eighteenth century and the Trail of Tears down to 1965 in Los Angeles where you still have a situation where there was a kind of structural racism. That is to say, after the abolition of slavery, it's not as if the enslaved were compensated. In fact, they went from being free labor to cheap labor, and then that disadvantage was passed down generationally. And then it was compounded by the fact that they were still seen as being part of what the journalists Isabel Wilkerson says in her latest book is [the] underprivileged or disadvantaged caste, C-A-S-T-E. And this of course then is enforced by officers of the state, which helps to trigger the Watts Revolt of 1965. And as suggested by my example of the Cherokees, those who were willing, or who thought that they were going to share in the U.S. bounty, were oftentimes forced to adhere to these rules such as enslaving Africans. And oftentimes, I'm sure you're familiar with these lawsuits that went all the way to the Supreme Court, when you have Asian immigrants coming to the United States — there was a Japanese case and a South Asian case in particular — where they litigate and try to show that they're White. Now, I think in all fairness that they thought that being White meant being part of the United States or having full citizenship rights. But of course, it meant a bit more than that, I'm afraid to say, it meant also going along with the program with regard to a white supremacy, bedeviling Black people, et cetera. And that helps to shed light not only on August 1965 in Los Angeles, but May 25th, 2020 in Minneapolis.

Erfan Moradi: Yeah. I think you're absolutely right to point [out] that throughout what you in some places describe as the "creation myth" of the United States, there's all of these international entanglements, that [in] the settler colonial context or in the emergence of the United States, that there's all of these ties to everywhere else in the world. And something that I think we've noticed in a lot of liberal discourses is this absence of [an] international context, that what is happening here is not isolated from elsewhere. And people on the streets in the sixties knew this. The Black Panther Party and the Black nationalists of the moment knew that their struggles were tied to places like in Vietnam and in Cuba and elsewhere. Can you illuminate for us the internationalist connections that you see present today in the uprisings?

Gerald Horne: Well, that's part of the problem I'm afraid to say. I was just saying on the radio this morning, [I was] asked to present a kind of eulogy to late Congressman John Lewis and the late preacher C.T. Vivian, both comrades of Martin Luther King Jr., that even though I think that they sought to fulfill their mission — in the words of the late great Martiniquan-cum-Algerian psychiatrist-writer Frantz Fanon, that is to say, "A generation must either fulfill its mission or betray it" — I think that in seeking to lead campaigns against Jim Crow, that is to say U.S. apartheid, and push for voting rights, they sought to fulfill their mission. But at the same time they were circumscribed. They were sort of cornered by what happened on the front end with regard to the preceding decade whereby the internationalists among us, Paul Robeson, the great artist, activist, intellectual, philologist, linguist, was isolated, marginalized, bludgeoned, passport taken, attempts on his life, et cetera. And then as your comment suggested, on the back end, their mission was circumscribed by what happened to the Black Panther Party, which had a kind of internationalist mission — being in the San Francisco Bay Area, I'm sure you're familiar with them since that's where they were basically born.

Gerald Horne: And the problem is that given the correlation of forces in the United States with the right wing being so strong historically, and the liberals oftentimes being seduced by right-wing ideologies such as what I call magical unrealism, that this Constitution — which explicitly spoke in racist terms with regard to the Fugitive Slave Clause, with regard to three-fifths of a human being the way that people of African-descent were viewed — somehow it's flexible and capacious enough to bring us within this ambit today.

Gerald Horne: When actually, if you try to do a more honest and accurate tracing of how we escaped freedom [and] then Jim Crow, to what we have today, you would have to point to international events. The Haitian Revolution, 1791 to 1804, which leads to the general crisis of the slave system including in North America, thereby helping to ignite a sectional crisis, which explodes in civil war with two hundred thousand black men fighting against the Confederacy and helping to defeat them. Or fast forward to the 1950s with the rise of national liberation movements in Africa and the Caribbean, [the] United States trying to curry favor in this ideological contestation with the [now] former Soviet Union, finding that Jim Crow is an aching achilles' heel. And then as the brief of the U.S. State Department says in the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 that Jim Crow should go because it's handicapping U.S. foreign policy.

Gerald Horne: However, subsequent generations, perhaps not unintentionally, have not necessarily ingested that lesson, to the point where when a few weeks ago the African Union headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — the pan-African transcontinental body of four dozen-plus African states — files a motion at the Human Rights Council of United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, calling for commission of inquiry into what they term "systemic racism" in United States of America. The motion does not pass, not least because many of the strugglers over here which this motion was filed on their behalf, they're not even aware, and I'm talking about leaders, people who should be in the know. So once again, as the historians like to say: this is hardly coincidental, this is hardly accidental. But until we're able to come to this realization about the importance of the global correlation of forces and the international community in terms of helping to bring change to these benighted United States of America, I'm afraid to say, we're always going to have these kinds of dilemmas that we face today.

Marc Abizeid: So what I'm hearing is: you're basically saying that this is really absent in the discourse, and maybe even in the consciousness of the people who are protesting, that they see [the] struggle as being only a domestic one, and that [absence] could inevitably harm the movement. And just to draw an example from your book on Watts, I mean, you talked about some of the fears of the government, seeing some of these connections, some of this consciousness among protestors who had sympathies towards the Viet Cong or whatever, seeing them [the protestors] breakaway, and so they felt compelled to make concessions. And so are you afraid that this is something that's missing today?

Gerald Horne: Well, sure. In my sixteenth-century book and also my seventeenth-century book and also I would say my 1776 book, they all challenge this sort of Enlightenment conceit, that is to say, that the moving away from religious sectarianism is somehow a product of the geniuses of Europe who come to see that religious sectarianism is not the way to go. When actually, as I try to show, it's really pragmatism: they need more warm bodies to confront the Indigenous so they can plunder and pillage their land and wealth and ditto for the Africans.

Gerald Horne: And likewise, with regard to 2020, I'm very much concerned about the domestic focus of today's events. I think it's fair to talk about an anti-Trump press that includes the New York Times and the Washington Post, and I think that if you read them, they give you this idea that there is this uprising and changing of consciousness taking place. Now that may be the case, and we'll certainly find out on the first Tuesday in November. But I also take seriously the Wall Street Journal editorial page where a columnist Lance Morrow said that the Trump base and those who sympathize with them cannot wait to get into the ballot box on the first Tuesday in November so they can have a "quiet riot," to use late Fred Harris' term, at the ballot box and to push back against what they call the woke generation and what they contemptuously refer to as political correctness and cancel culture and these other red herrings that are tossed casually into the discourse. So we'll see soon enough on I guess it's November 3rd, 2020, who's correct and who's not. But I'm very much concerned that there might be an overestimation of how the tide has turned since May 25th. And we'll see, but I have my doubts.

Erfan Moradi: Yeah. I think we all share the worry of a reactionary revolt or a conservative backlash. And I think we're starting to see the early but aggressive manifestations of that happening now in Portland where we're seeing federal troops snatching people off the streets in the same way we saw Immigration and Customs Enforcements grabbing people throughout immigrant communities. To frame it locally, Trump just threatened to send federal troops to a bunch of different cities, including to Oakland, Berkeley's nearby neighbor. Perhaps fearing a federal backlash, Mayor Libby Schaaf voted against budget cuts to the police. But I was wondering, could you share your thoughts on the federal government's overreach or overstepping both in Portland and across the country? What do you think is motivating this, and do you see this as having a historical precedent or is this a novel invention?

Gerald Horne: Well, whether or not it's novel, I'll leave to the dueling law professors. Barry Friedman at NYU says that it's wholly novel. Jonathan Turley at George Washington [University] — who of course is very close to William Barr the Attorney General, who was a graduate of that university — says that what Trump is doing is consistent with sending federal agents into Oxford, Mississippi in 1962, or sending federalized troops into Little Rock in 1957. But what I will say is that I think politically it's a campaign ploy, setting legality aside. That is to say, it's helping to construct this image, as the oaf in the Oval Office has put it explicitly, that the so called Democratic-run cities are out of control, basically bending the knee to the so-called radical Left, and that he is going to restore law and order because if he doesn't, it'll soon spread to the suburbs, and before you know it in Albany and Menlo Park, there'll be barbarians at the gates.

Gerald Horne: Now, what's interesting is that he has chosen a particular antagonist whose very person resonates — I'm thinking of the mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, a black lesbian woman, with all three categories carrying certain implications that do not necessarily resonate positively for the Trump coalition, sixty-three million strong. And likewise, I think we should take very seriously the fact that there are officers in the Philadelphia police force who were recently found to be consorting with the Proud Boys, this alt-right — to use that euphemism — grouping; or that we now have these new terms that have barged their way into our vocabulary, such as vehicular terrorism which took a victim in Seattle just a few weeks ago, [and] has involved not only civilians but police officers using their cars to drive into a bevy of peaceful protestors.

Gerald Horne: So there are some very dangerous and ominous signals that I think we would be derelict to ignore because I'm not the only person or certainly not the first person to raise the specter of the F-word or fascism, but it does tend to creep in on little cat feet. Or the other analogy that's often used of the lobster who's dropped into the water and then the heat is turned up gradually, and by the time the lobster realizes what's happening, he's on the dinner plate. And I think that you're having a gradual turning up the heat, and hopefully we'll be able to react forcefully before we wind up on a virtual dinner plate.

Marc Abizeid: One of the things we wanted to ask was maybe also comparing what happened in the sixties to today, but to see maybe if there is a little bit of hope in this moment. In the sense that in the sixties and '65, you describe the events and the implications of those uprisings for race relations, and you talk about Whites in the South locking their door and then the backlash that emerged. And today we're seeing a different scene with the protest being more multiracial: you're seeing like Mom and Dad Blocs, and you're seeing people who I don't think you would have imagined a few years ago out on the streets protesting in solidarity out on the streets today. So what do you make of that kind of aspect?

Gerald Horne: Well, I agree with you, and pardon me if I seem overly pessimistic, but I don't know, I just feel the need to push back against some folks who tend to think that these traditions that took hundreds of years to be formed can be washed away in eight weeks, that is to say since May 25th, 2020. I just think that's naive. But certainly, the New York Times has suggested that since May 25th, 2020, we witnessed in this country the largest mass movement in the history of this country. That's nothing to sniff at. What I referenced with regards to the African Union and their motion, that's nothing to sniff at. And of course, they're going to be coming back for more. They're not going sit down just because their effort was thwarted in June 2020. And all of this, I would hope and imagine is leading to an altered consciousness that is coming directly from the pounding of the pavement. Hopefully that will then lead to an enhanced movement for inclusion and an enhanced struggle against white supremacy and all of its accoutrements. So, yeah, I think that there's reason for optimism, and so I agree with the thrust of your inquiry.

Erfan Moradi: Speaking as a historian, as someone who has had a really expansive historical career or literary career, what do you think the role of the historian or the public intellectual is in developing this altered consciousness or developing this framework for inclusion? And just to offer one little note, I'm reminded through reading your work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot's words at the beginning of Silencing the Past, "History is the fruit of power." Power makes and erases memories. I'm wondering how these words resonate with your work and with the current moment.

Gerald Horne: Well, I would like to think that it does resonate with my work. And with regard to historians and scholars and public intellectuals, I don't think you necessarily have to do it in every work that you produce, but at some point along the line, I think that this grouping should try to challenge a good deal of this mythology that has held us back, and in some ways, has been demobilizing. Now I don't say you have to do it in every work. I mean, I'm publishing a book on boxing in a few months. Now, I think it's a good book, I think it makes some contributions to sports literature, but I really can't say that it's challenging the creation myths in the United States.

Gerald Horne: But I think also that it's important, I would say, for historians to try to move out of their comfort zone, because the way the historian's job, at least in the universities work, is that you pick out an area of study like the U.S. Civil War, and you studied that for thirty years, 1861 to 1865. But in some ways, even if you go deeply into that subject, in some ways it sort of lets you off the hook because you don't necessarily have to look at the broad expanse of what happened leading up to the U.S. Civil War, nor do you have to look at what happened after the U.S. Civil War, for example. So I would encourage historians in particular to try to produce more works of synthesis, that tries to synthesize all these monographs and turn them into overarching narratives that challenge the creation myths. I would also encourage historians in some particular to be totally up to the second with regards to what's happening not only in this country but around the world because I think that they'll find that their historical works are somehow [connected to] what's happening up to the second, [that] in some way is an extension of their historical work. And so if you can understand what's happening at this moment with more precision, I think you'll understand your historical work with more accuracy.
Gerald Horne: And I make this particular plea to those who have tenure before it erodes and is snatched away by the right wing, which you cannot rule out quite frankly. Anybody who thinks you can rule that out, I'd like to buy some of what you're smoking. So before it disappears, I think that they should use this tenure to push the envelope, to start challenging power, to use the term that you so correctly invoked.

Erfan Moradi: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that's a really fantastic call to action. And just to ask one concluding question: what is the through-line or the synthesis that holds your work together? How do you see your work on, for example, you've written about W. E. B. Du Bois and about the Haitian Revolution and about the incredible Paul Robeson and William Patterson. How do you see all of these works connecting together in—

Marc Abizeid: Plus your upcoming book on boxing, which we just learned about.

Gerald Horne: I think I've gone through different phases. I'm an alumnus of UC Berkeley, by the way. I graduated from law school in... well, let's say many moons ago. And then did law for quite a while, but then found discouragement because I felt that my law work, which was basically political, was being handicapped by what I perceived to be a lack or a naive understanding of history. So then that led me into history and then I started doing all this work on the twentieth century and twentieth-century radicalism. But I found that it was difficult for people to accept what I was saying about twentieth-century radicalism as long as they had a naive understanding of the origins of the United States. So I decided working my way back in time.

Gerald Horne: And so now I've worked my way back to the sixteenth century and now I'm in dry dock as result of the pandemic, so [there's] no telling other than this book on boxing when I'll be able to complete these other projects I've been working on. So I don't know, I guess there may be two or three through-lines. I mean, one is this sort of twentieth-century radicalism, and another is slavery in the origins of settler colonialism [and] origins of the United States, and then another, which sort of is an extension from twentieth-century radicalism, dealing with boxing, movies, music — I did a book on jazz a year or two ago. And then I've tried to cover the planet to show that, as Robeson tried to show, that we're all one and that our struggles or similar. So, I've done research on every continent and written about every continent and even the South Sea. So I'm not sure if there one through-line connecting all of that, but that's my explanation of what I've been doing for the past few decades.

Marc Abizeid: And that wraps up this episode of Who Belongs?. Thank you to our guest, Gerald Horne, Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, and author of many books including his most recent that came out last month, The Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century.

Erfan Moradi: We'll place links to some of Professor Horne's work along with a transcript of this episode on our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs.

Marc Abizeid: This has been Marc Abizeid.

Erfan Moradi: And this is Erfan Moradi.

Marc Abizeid: Thank you for listening.


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