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Justifying slavery in a republic

The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson, Basic Books, April 2020, ISBN 978-0465064267

The city of St. Louis is at the American intersection of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. It was the springboard of American imperial expansion that was built upon the destruction of Native population. It reminds us that America’s wealth was created on the backs of black slaves. However, part of the soul of St. Louis has been radical for a long time. In the mid-nineteenth century, when radical refugees moved into the city in large numbers after the 1848 European revolutions, they changed the character of the city. In The Broken Heart of America, Walter Johnson argues that they made the city the first site of the Civil War’s first general emancipation and nation’s first general strike.

Walter Johnson calls The Broken Heart of America a history book on racial capitalism – “the intertwined history of white supremacist ideology and the practices of empire, extraction, and exploitation.” It is dynamic, unstable, ever-changing, and world-making.” He writes that the history of racial capitalism has always justified the terms of imperial dispossession and capitalist exploitation. The aim has been to expropriate Native American lands on the grounds that they were empty. This made it possible to justify slavery in a republic founded under the rubric equality. It was able to maintain a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor; between the victims of economic downturns and those who lack the personal responsibility to keep up – in other words, between the real Americans and “our traditions” and the people who don’t respect the country, its past, and the flag.

He argues that the same tool was used to make poor and working-class white people believe that their interests lie in making common cause with their political leaders and economic better common cause in whiteness. The underlying idea was that they might eventually share in the spoils. The poor and working-class white people were made to believe that the discomforts and anxieties of their own precarious lives were and/or due to those below them rather than those above them. He writes, “If guns and tanks and tear gas control the black people, the concept of white supremacy controls the white people.” Walter Johnson argues that the promises made to poor and working-class white people have remained committed to social order – history in the service of empire and capital. In other words, white poor and working-class people have remained committed to war in the name of white homesteads, to low wages subsidized by segregation and social isolation and cultural monotony understood as suburban exclusivity. Walter Johnson argues that the notion of racism and capitalism also helps us understand the excessive pleasures of white supremacy. He cites that example of the joyful mob in East St. Louis in 1917 when the lynch mob wore grins on their faces as they expressed joy in front of the body of the lynched man. He says, historically, the white people have drawn pleasure from the suffering of the Blacks.

The publication of The Broken Heart of America coincides with newest wave of nationwide anti-racist protests. The current wave of protests has lasted longer than in the past and its echoes have been heard outside of the United States as well. Walter Johnson helps us understand how American capitalism is different from other versions in the rest of the world — while capitalism in other parts of the world is focused on making profits, American capitalism has thrived on slavery and spoils. He explains the roots of racism in America and explains why they have lasted so long. The Broken Heart of America is a well-researched and brilliantly written work that sheds light on the dark corners of American history and explains our present predicament. This is the real American history we don’t learn in the schools. It is a necessary read to understand the dark corners of our history.

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