The Firebell in the Night

How many times has this phrase of Thomas Jefferson’s been used to introduce the topic of the African-American presence?

Practicing presentism, we are wont to ascribe to Jefferson an awareness of what we nowadays call the race question or even the doctrine of racism itself. That does not seem to be the case. That slaves might want to be free he seems to acknowledge in the brief piece I read:

Monticello Apr. 22. 20.

I thank you, Dear Sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me of the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. it is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read the newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once concieved and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation, by dividing the burthen on a greater number of co-adjutors. an abstinence too from this act of power would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress, to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state. this certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the general government. could congress, for example say that the Non-freemen of Connecticut, shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other state?

I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76. to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. if they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.

to yourself as the faithful advocate of union I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect. Th. Jefferson

       From the Library of Congress (

This passage requires study and I am reading material now that may lead to a better understanding, but there is no hint that he recognizes the human, inalienable right to freedom, to emancipation from slavery. By this late date, 1820, the work done by law (see Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance to Today by Jacqueline Battalora) to firmly set into place a caste system based on the assumed inferiority of Black people had been done. Some people believe a 3 month course in race relations will clear all this up. It won’t.

A very large proportion of people in this country see those of African descent as a group apart. In my discussion of this I will talk about people we generalize as White, but that is not to say that Asians, Native Americans, Hispanics and even Black people themselves do not buy into this vision of Black people as apart. Of course, I draw on my personal experience growing up in a working class White family in the Midwest and later in Arizona plus all my associations over the years. I will refer to academic studies as frequently as I feel they make or support a point.

Most older White Americans grew up with two conditions: separation from personal interaction with Black people and a moral imperative that it is not nice to be racist. Younger Americans have a much more mixed experience with African-Americans. We really should not give credence to the suggestion that playing sports with a few Black guys significantly alters the interaction with Blacks in other settings. That interaction arises from a complex of perspectives, practices and beliefs inculcated as part of one’s socialization. That varies from social class to social class, region to region, family to family and personal experience to personal experience. One White man working in the Johnson administration dedicated himself to Black equality when he saw Black stewards on his ship race up to the deck being raked by gunfire from Japanese planes to man the machine guns and fight off the Kamikazes. Then they went back to serving the White officers. That one man saw the injustice of that. That was his personal moment. Most people don’t have personal moments like that.

The complexities come in when you find a White Viet Nam vet who fought alongside Black soldiers but finds himself back in his old neighborhood where defending the turf against the Ns * is still an imperative. So why the need to defend the turf? Beliefs about Blacks and about themselves. 

Those beliefs thrive in darkness, in ignorance, in fear. Hatred does not arise from nothing, it arises from fear. Fear arises not from nothing but from ignorance. Being afraid of a rampaging bear is not ignorant but being afraid of a person because you expect that person to be dangerous, disease-ridden, violent, half-crazy……. An example. My friend’s mom went to Kansas City as a young woman in the 20s and was told to be careful riding the street cars because the Blacks would rape her. She carried that fear of Black people into old age and then made some real effort to excorcise it. But all through her life she accepted the status of Blacks as necessary and natural out of fear derived from ignorance. 

A recent trope regarding police shootings of Black people is that Black people do not know how to behave around the police. I have that in writing from two people. One had the nerve to mention that he and some of his friends, all White men in their 80s, had been stopped by a policeman and had had no trouble at all. That utterly dense remark made sense to him. Tell that to the cafeteria worker Filando Castile.

Here are beliefs I have heard, directly and indirectly:

Blacks were better off as slaves here than in Africa

Slaves could buy their way out of slavery if they worked hard

The slaves were well-treated because they were valuable and cost a lot

After emancipation, Blacks were free to do what they wanted

Only uneducated, low-class Whites in the South mistreated Blacks

Blacks in the North were treated just like everyone else (and still are)

Blacks moved north to big cities when they heard they could get on welfare

In the 60s, as the factories that drew Black labor north were closing, signs regarding the government programs (labeled by initials) to help dislocated workers were ridiculed with bumper stickers reading The Best Work Program is a J.O.B. or I Fight Poverty, I Work.

Blacks get free college tuition

Blacks get into colleges whose standards they are completely unprepared for (even Obama endured this calumny)

While some individual Whites, particularly in the South, discriminated against Blacks, most White people had nothing to do with that and knew nothing about it

Whites whose parents or grandparents migrated here have no part in this

Blacks get subsidies just for being Black, a kind of “Negro check” (I’m still waiting for mine 56 years later)

Affirmative action was a kind of revenge against White people because Whites were passed over for jobs and promotions

Blacks score lower than Whites on IQ tests, showing they cannot compete with Whites on a level playing field

The high unmarried woman birth rate among Blacks is proof of their inherent immorality

The way Blacks talk shows they cannot learn proper English even though they have been in this country longer than a lot of Whites, going back to the 1600s

The way Blacks dress is provocative and showy, revealing their primitive ideas of proper comportment

Blacks dance in a way as to either suggest or outright portray sexual intercourse, displaying their primitive nature, like animals

While Black music is entertaining and most Blacks are natural singers, dancers, and musicians, their music will never reach the heights of the sublime that Western music reaches

Blacks perform well and even outperform Whites in sports because of the more primitive make-up of their bodies and minds

Science has proven all the stereotypes about Black ability, performance, intelligence, morals, and industry

The truth about Blacks can best be discovered by talking to the people who know them best: White Southerners, White policemen, White teachers in predominantly Black schools

All the Blacks you see on television occupying high level positions in all fields are either exceptions to the rule or downright propaganda fakery by the liberal press and government.

Blacks do not really want to be part of White society as shown by their selection of ridiculous names for their children and their continual use of bad English despite free schooling and their wallowing in so-called entertainment like rap and hip-hop that defies all criteria for fine art

Blacks are very religious but their religion, although Christian, has a good deal of superstitious beliefs and bizarre behavior like dancing in church and rolling around on the floor in fits

Attempts to integrate Blacks into White society will not work due to the characteristics listed above, in sum: laziness, dishonesty, irresponsibility, low IQ and immorality, and further attempts to do so has justified what many call racism but is only a reasonable response to having people foisted on real Americans who have not become real Americans in over four hundred years. Now we have the Mexicans all over with the same problems.

OK. There it is. For a good many of these I can cite the persons, places, time, and situation in which I have heard things like this. This list is surely partial. The light peeking through the clouds is supposed to be the young people. However, as a classroom teacher I can only say that what has changed is what is considered proper behavior around the issue of race. Great resentment is often expressed by kids at being chastised for saying things about minorities that someone deems inappropriate. That does not mean these kids are outright racist, only that they harbor many of the notions listed above.

Moreover, many Whites are tired of several decades of lectures and workshops on ethnic minorities. Sometime in the 90s I noticed a shift from terms relating to ethnicity like cross-cultural, multicultural, and so forth to diversity as the term. Having listened to many conversations around race and ethnicity, it seemed to me to be a way of avoiding topics like why are there no minorities in the advanced classes.

On a purely personal and impressionistic note, I will observe that I have seen and heard people struggle mightily to keep the N word penned up in their mouths. They SO want to use it. In the 60s the Staple Singers had a hit about “people smiling in your face.” Still apropos now.

If you want to change America, these people are part of it, too. When they see protesters, they think hippie long-hairs who hate America and don’t work for a living; when they see signs asking the police to follow the law, they see people who want to weaken law enforcement in the face of an unprecedented rise in crime; when they see reports that crime is at its lowest in many decades and that illegal immigrants commit crime at a lower rate than citizens, they hear hair-brained liberal and possibly communist college professors making up stuff to hide the crime being committed by their favorite minority. They do not understand people who are not upset by Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, dark-skinned people, people speaking foreign languages —– what’s wrong with Americans who don’t treasure American ways? Why aren’t they sickened by all the foreignness that has invaded the land, driven down wages, raised the crime rate, and even vote fraudulently? The same man riding in the car with his 80 year old bros told me that the prestigious institute that showed numbers of cases of voter fraud to be in single digits is simply a front for liberals who want those votes for Democrats.

Solutions offered are shot down one equally spurious bases. Today, June 7, 2020, Tiffany Cross said Blacks have to die in a spectacular fashion to pierce the White narrative. I would expand a bit and say to pierce the veil of supremacy. In the same program, A.M. Joy, today Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility, made powerful points about Whites being given the benefit of the doubt on objectivity. That was in response to a previous segment on the same day where two reporters from a Pittsburgh newspaper were removed from protest coverage because they could not be objective. Joy raised the comparison of White male reporters covering the GOP National Convention, which consists of White males primarily.

The next thing I’ll add to this entry is the objections offered to solutions.

OK. I’m back. One objection I got really gut-punched me. I gave the name of a great book on what it is like for minority children in the education system, Other People’s Children. He read it and dismissed as crybaby talk. When we say that White people must have that talk with their kids, but not about the dangers they face from the police but the danger of being fat, dumb and happy, unaware of their privilege. When ABC News put a gang of White young men in a car at 3 in the morning in a MacDonalds parking lot, they filmed several squad cars driving by. When they put some Black young men in the car in the same place at the same time it took about five minutes for several squad cars to come squealing into the parking lot. And the cars’ occupants were actually ABC employees. THAT is why conservatives hate the news; it is the old patriarchy where the menfolk have to do some ugly things in order to provide a serene existence for the ladies. Having the police beat up Black people just keeps the neighborhoods of White people free of Blacks. Why is that desirable? For the beliefs listed above; those ladies are afraid of Black people.

How about cultural training for the police so they will recognize when a situation among Black people may be getting out of hand; the behavior of Whites and Blacks in such situations is different (see Thomas Kochman’s Black and White Styles in Conflict). But that is just the point: they have a different culture, they aren’t like us anymore than the Mexican are and we are the real Americans. Why should a police officer have to cater to any of these so-called cultural or ethnic groups?

*I hate using that word because people will then say it is seldom heard. We really should be more out front with it but I know some programs delete words on a list and I want this entry available.


  1. 伟思礼 says:

    My father hypothesized that black success in sports might be due to treatment during slavery helping them to evolve strength and endurance.

  2. Pat Barrett says:

    And running from the dogs 🙂
    Apropos of me having citations, vague though they may be, Sports Illustrated had a big controversy a few years ago when they published an article about West Africans having more fast-twitch muscle fibers.
    The same thinking is found re Jews: they have some innate quality that makes them good at money-making instead of looking at the fact that the religion made young boys literate at a time when few people were. Leg up? I’d say so. Plus the Catholic Church forbade ‘money lending and taking interest’ so the aristocrats turned financial matters over to Jews to manage them.
    Joel Kotkin has a good book on such dynamics among a number of world-wide ethnic or religion-based groups who are successful financially, starting with Anglo-Americans and going on to the Subcontinent people, Chinese, Jews, and Japanese, remarking on their characteristics. The obverse is why some such groups do not form such world-wide networks like Arabs, Africans of various nations, Russians, although some may have done so already or there are clear reasons why they have not.

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