The all-white jury

The U.S. Senate consists of 100 senators, 67 of whom must vote to convict Donald Trump in order to remove him from office. Of these, 53 are Republicans, 45 are Democrats, and 2 are independents. One may think that the greatest obstacle to fair proceedings in the Senate is political affiliation.

But like most things in America, it’s going to be about race.

While Republicans have a majority in the Senate, it’s thanks to a Constitution which gives a state like Wyoming with half a million people the same number of senators as California with almost 40 million.

Our nation’s founders not only feared black demographics but modeled the Senate after the British House of Lords. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that a citizen even got to vote for his senator. Until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, senators were appointed by the governor of each state and often the position was inherited. It wasn’t until 1920 until women could vote at all.

By design, then, the U.S. Senate has always been the Yankee version of the House of Lords. By design it was and remains undemocratic, and by design its purpose is to thwart the will of the people’s House of Representatives. It does this a little too well, and thus undermines democracy.

Also by design, the Senate remains an almost exclusively white club. Of the nation’s 100 senators, 91 are white — a statistical anomaly in a country where 76% of the people are white and the percentage has been in steady decline since 1950. There are four Hispanic senators, three Asian senators, and three Black senators. Kamala Harris is of Indian-Jamaican heritage, checking off two boxes.

All of which is to say — this is the lily white jury that’s going to consider Trump’s Articles of Impeachment.

Donald Trump once boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and wouldn’t lose a vote. A Department of Justice memorandum gives him a get-out-of-jail-free card for federal offenses. And the composition of the Senate makes it virtually certain that Trump’s impeachable offenses will result in acquittal.

But American deference to white billionaires is bipartisan and bicameral.

Even the House’s Articles of Impeachment are watered-down charges consisting only of the president’s most recent attempts to extort Ukraine to intervene in the 2020 presidential election. So far, the charges don’t include anything from the Mueller report, Trump’s numerous emoluments clause violations, lying about illegal payments to porn stars and mistresses, or any of his many obstructions of justice.

As if all this kid glove treatment were not bad enough, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to fast-track the Senate trial down to two weeks — three times shorter than Nixon’s. And for the sake of comparison, in 2016, when South Korea impeached president Park Geun-hye for corruption and influence-peddling, prosecutors charged her with 13 counts remarkably similar to Trump’s, and her trial in South Korea’s Constitutional Court lasted 10 weeks. Gun-hye’s refusal to appear before the court was never an impediment to her conviction.

No, the travesty of justice we are about to witness from an all-white jury in the U.S. Senate is one America has seen many times before:

  • In 1955, when Emmett Till was murdered and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River, his killers were acquitted by an all-white jury after one hour of deliberation.
  • In 1963, after Medgar Evers was gunned down in Mississippi, two all-white juries acquitted his killers in separate trials.
  • In 1998, when 13 white supremacists were charged with attempting to murder a federal judge and FBI agent, they were acquitted by an all-white jury.
  • In 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin by a jury with only one juror of color.
  • In 2016, a group of armed sovereign citizens who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge were acquitted by an all-white jury — while on the same day unarmed Native Americans protesting a pipeline on their own land were maced and beaten by police.
  • It’s not even possible to list the thousands of times that white police officers have murdered unarmed black men and been acquitted or simply not charged.

As Trump’s impeachment unfolds, Democrats may rightly fume about a partisan Senate subverting justice by speeding through a sham trial with the clear intention of acquitting the president.

But, to steal a phrase from the software world, these travesties of justice are not a bug but a feature of American so-called “democracy.”

Notes on Democratic campaigns

Republicans are incredibly on-message at all times, while it’s difficult to determine what the Democratic Party stands for much of the time. For example, Margaret Monsell’s piece in Commonwealth accuses Massachusetts Dems led by House Speaker Bob DeLeo of being more interested in safeguarding incumbent seats than in the professed values of their own party.

One may be inclined to ascribe the superiority of Republican messaging to that party’s penchant for authoritarianism and undemocratic dirty tricks — and you will get no argument from me. But Republicans actually believe in something — no matter that much of it is cruel and immoral — but they never miss an opportunity to hammer away at their message.

In contrast, the Democratic Party discounts progressives and minorities — and instead focuses on races in which they support Frankencandidates precisely engineered for specific congressional districts.

Despite professed values, in the presidential race this polling-based approach has led to candidates of color like Kamala Harris dropping out and to the short-changing of candidates like Cory Booker — the “other” Rhodes Scholar mayor (but the one with six years in the Senate). Even with Harris’ criminal justice problems and Booker’s buddies in Big Pharma, both are stronger than the candidate with the Hunter Biden problem, and both are preferable to the guy with big problems with his McKinsey & Co. career and his own cityfolk. But the Democratic Party thinks it needs a white guy.

Quentin James of the CollectivePAC, a black political action committee, called out liberal Democrats in 2016 for the “other” type of white supremacy: “I am talking about, […] ‘a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.’”

With Democrats having learned nothing from the last election, buckle up for a repeat of 2016.

In Democratic congressional races, too, the strategy of discounting values and real, live, breathing constituents led to the DCCC backing Jeff Van Drew — the most conservative New Jersey white male Democrat with his 100% rating from the NRA — over Tanzie Youngblood, a progressive black woman with a #MeToo message.

And if the name “Van Drew” sounds familiar, it’s because this DCCC-financed virtual Republican just made it official when he defected to the Republican Party, announcing that he’d also be voting against impeachment.

Democrats need to start showing they believe in something besides polling, and they have to run with a consistent message and consistent values — regardless of the district and regardless of the futility of a particular race.

This is a tune that’s topped the Republican Hit Parade for years.

Maybe Democrats should hum a few bars themselves.

Review: The Hidden Wound, by Wendell Berry

I have forgotten precisely how Wendell Berry’s “The Hidden Wound” came to be on my reading list. At the time I ordered the book I did not know that Berry had written it in 1968 as a meditation on race relations, safe in a quiet research room in a library on the Stanford campus. I knew only that Berry was a respected “agrarian” poet from Kentucky and a thoughtful man. Maybe I was hoping for a little hope.

Despite its age and defects, Berry’s book was not a disappointment. Those reading the book a half a century after it was written will be put off by dozens of uses of the N-word to describe a certain type of labor thought to be menial. And today’s reader will likewise be bewildered or angered by his thesis that white supremacy has equally wounded both whites and blacks. As one unsympathetic reviewer put it, “This book looks at the cultural wound of racism from the perspective of the oppressor, implying that the abused and the abuser suffer equally.” Berry never even comes close to making that case.

Likewise, Berry’s depictions of his grandfather’s tenant farmer Nick and Aunt Georgie are cringe-worthy tales of noble serfs who found true happiness in honest work on someone else’s land. To reinforce this notion Berry recalls the tale of Eumaios, “the noble swineherd” who befriended Odysseus upon his return to Ithaka. Berry also places himself in the shoes of Dostoevsky’s landowner, Levin, who desires to know more about the serfs who work his vast estate.

And Wendell Berry, in 1968, was hardly ready or willing to indict Capitalism for the separation of white men from the actual stewardship of the land they instead stole and despoiled and had others work on. His arguments are diffuse and he is almost comically incapable of drawing the obvious links between the racism, colonialism, and environmental destruction he describes throughout his meditation. Instead of understanding the sources of this alienation politically — which he explicitly rejects — Berry seizes upon Southern Agrarianism as the cure for his and America’s wounds.

Yet, despite these many sins and omissions, Berry’s book is nevertheless filled with insight. In the book’s early pages, Berry writes of white self-delusion facilitated by conscious myth-making and propaganda:

“As a people, we have been tolled farther and farther away from the facts of what we have done by the romanticizers, whose bait is nothing more than the wishful insinuation that we have done no harm. Speaking a public language of propaganda, uninfluenced by the real content of our history which we know only in a deep and guarded privacy, we are still in the throes of the paradox of the ‘gentleman and soldier.’ However conscious it may have been, there is no doubt in my mind that all this moral and verbal obfuscation is intentional. Nor do I doubt that its purpose is to shelter us from the moral anguish implicit in our racism — an anguish that began, deep and mute, in the minds of (my emphasis) Christian democratic freedom-loving owners of slaves.”

As a Southerner familiar with slaveholder customs, Berry demolishes the lie that slavery did “no harm” to either party:

“First, consider the moral predicament of the master who sat in church with his slaves, thus attesting his belief in the immortality of the souls of people whose bodies he owned and used. He thus placed his body, if not his mind, at the very crux of the deepest contradiction of his life. How could he presume to own the body of a man whose soul he considered as worthy of salvation as his own?”

Southern Christianity itself had to contend with this moral contradiction. It solved the problem by completely hollowing itself out. Murder, rape, slavery and exploitation were no longer to be regarded as sins and were replaced by prohibitions on trivial acts such as drinking, failing to attend church, or gambling.

“Detached from real issues and real evils, the language of religion became abstract, intensely (desperately) pious, rhetorical, inflated with phony mysticism and joyless passion. The religious institutions became comfort stations for scribes and publicans and pharisees. Far from curing the wound of racism, the white man’s Christianity has been its soothing bandage — a bandage masquerading as Sunday clothes, for the wearing of which one expects a certain moral credit.”

Fifty long years before Steve Bannon’s pan-European nationalism efforts, Berry indicted white American culture as a sterile, delusional imitation of Europeanism — while, on the other hand, he pointed to black culture’s richness and connection to the reality of its people, history and the land.

And Berry wanted some of that:

“And then in the spring of 1964 I turned back on the direction I had been going. I returned to Kentucky, and within a year bought and moved onto a little farm in my native part of the state. That return made me finally an exile from the ornamental Europeanism that still passes for culture with most Americans. What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its source: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness. I realized that the culture I needed was not to be found by visiting museums and libraries and auditoriums. It occurred to me that there was another measure for my life than the amount or even the quality of the writing I did; a man, I thought, must be judged by how willingly and meaningfully he can be present where he is, by how fully he can make himself at home in his part of the world. I began to want desperately to learn to belong to my place.”

The Southern Agrarianism that Berry seized upon in 1968 may then have been a naive, nostalgic rejection of industrialization, but today it is a prominent feature of Neo-Confederacy and the Alt-Right. Berry’s meticulously-drawn links to the actual stewardship of land by black farmers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers belies the claims of the revisionist Neo-Confederates whose real or imagined ancestors simply owned the people who worked the plantations.

Most importantly, what Berry’s book tells us is that white people have understood racism for centuries and have passed down their own history as a self-indictment. “The Hidden Wound” was written at just about the same time the Kerner Report came out. White America has been able to read about this wound for at least a half century.

So now the question is: what are we going to do about it?