A City’s History and Racial Capitalism

Against the Current, No. 216, January-February 2022

David Helps

The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History
of the United States
By Walter Johnson
Basic Books, 2020, $19.99 paperback.

ON JUNE, 2020 a middle-aged white couple in St. Louis greeted Black Lives Matter protesters on their street by brandishing firearms. The images became instantly iconic: neither was wearing shoes, he holding an AR-15, she waving a semiautomatic pistol — sometimes at his head — outside their palatial mansion in a gated section of St. Louis’ Central West End.

The couple was soon identified as Mark and Patricia McCloskey, two highly litigious personal injury lawyers. Despite their nouveau riche occupation and high-powered weaponry, that day the McCloskeys shared a paranoid fantasy with propertied whites of centuries past: that of the slave revolt.

“They were going to kill us,” Patricia told Sean Hannity on Fox News, certain that the mob would have set fire to the home, or else murder the owners and claim it for themselves. “They pointed to different rooms and said, ‘that’s gonna be my bedroom… I’m gonna be taking a shower in that room…’”

Right Place for Wrong Reasons

In The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, released last year and now out in paperback, Harvard historian and Missouri native Walter Johnson traces the history of St. Louis from its emergence as a fur-trade outpost in the early 1900s to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson.

Johnson argues that Americans’ understanding of racism focuses too narrowly on slavery and its legacies, a counterintuitive claim for a celebrated historian of slavery. Rather, white supremacy is rooted in the capture of Black resources and the containment of Black people, as much as labor exploitation associated with chattel slavery.

By reconstructing a city’s history, Johnson recasts U.S. history as one of racial capitalism: the fusion of “white supremacist ideology” with “empire, extraction, and exploitation.” St. Louis is “the right place for all the wrong reasons,” Johnson observes. Here the imperatives of westward expansion, capitalist growth and racial ordering converged.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition created the blueprint for what Johnson calls “Black removalism.” A year after the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to map the newly acquired lands that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico through present-day Montana.

Euro-American dependence on Indigenous knowledge and hospitality — on “the choreography of gift giving and bargaining” — gave way to a regime of elimination. Most of the former French colony became the Missouri Territory, with Lewis and Clark each having a chance to serve as governor.

Their influence was never confined to the frontier, however. After Missouri became a state in 1820, Clark became the federal government’s first Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Over more than a decade, he negotiated treaties that forced 81,000 Indigenous people off their land and established a culture of settler violence emanating from the frontier.

Federal treaties established new lines on the map but it was capitalist expansion that made settler sovereignty a reality. St. Louis’s population tripled between 1810 and 1820 as enterprising white men sought commercial opportunities. Among them was Thomas Hart Benton, a slaveholding land speculator and one of Missouri’s inaugural senators.

In Washington, Benton fought to subsidize land purchases and later the transcontinental railroad. You’ll find him at St Louis’s Lafayette Park — carved in bronze and clad in a Roman toga, eyes forever pointed westward.

After statehood, legislators turned the “practices of removal and containment” toward Black Missourians. In 1847, Missouri imposed a $1000 bond on Black “immigrants,” treating them like Indigenous persons: trapped somewhere between foreigners and citizens as codified by the 1831 Cherokee v. Georgia Supreme Court decision.

No Rights to Respect

A decade later, the Supreme Court ruled on Black people’s contested legal status. In Dred Scott v. Sandford which originated in St. Louis’s federal court, Chief Justice Roger Taney held that Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The Founders of the Republic could never have intended for the “African race” to be on equal footing with the white man, Taney insisted.

Taney’s objections to equal rights revealed an obsession with Black mobility, political organization and armed struggle: that Blacks might travel “without pass or passport,” would “hold meetings upon political affairs,” or “keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

It would take the Civil War to overturn whites-only citizenship. Enslaved people fled the Confederacy for border states like Missouri in what W. E. B. Du Bois later correctly recounted as a “general strike.” St. Louis’s Black population increased 600 percent after 1860.

Black Missourians also fought for full social citizenship based on reparations and greater economic rights for all. St. Louis established some of the first public schools for Black students west of the Mississippi, including Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School, named for the once-enslaved hero of the Haitian Revolution.

After 1870, however, moderates in the Republican Party became more concerned with restoring suffrage to ex-Confederates than with protecting Black citizenship, let alone expanding its meaning. Following the disputed presidential election of 1876, Republicans made a backroom compromise which included withdrawing federal troops from the South. The revolution that was Reconstruction gave way to “the dictatorship of property,” in Du Bois’ trenchant phrase.

The U.S. federal army of liberation that safeguarded Black civil rights in the former Confederacy also massacred Indigenous people and cleared the way for the transcontinental railroad. Better known for his order to provide the formerly enslaved with “forty acres and a mule,” William Tecumseh Sherman also promised president Grant that “a few thieving, ragged Indians” would not stop national (and industrial) “progress.”

Wages of Whiteness

With the “railroadization of the West,” St. Louis grew to nearly 600,000 people by 1900. The following year, a residential segregation ordinance passed by popular vote.

In 1904, St. Louis marked the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase by hosting the World’s Fair. With exhibits on “primitive” cultures, daily re-enactments of frontier battles and segregated restaurants, the fair elped crystallize white imperial masculinity — a powerful “solvent” in a city where the majority of workers were of European immigrant stock.

This wages of whiteness superseded class solidarity. On May 28, 1917, whites began to attack Black residents of East St. Louis, just across the Mississippi River in Illinois. For over a month, whites of all classes assaulted Blacks on streetcars, shot them in broad daylight and torched their homes. Hours before, a well-to-do white lawyer had suggested that Black migrants might steer clear of East St. Louis if the next family had to watch their house burn down.

The Broken Heart of America, however, isn’t primarily an account of Black and Indigenous victimhood. Johnson lays much of the blame with the radical agitators of St. Louis for failing to recognize the dynamism of white supremacy.

During a 1933 strike at the Funsten Nut factory, the largest employer of Black women in St. Louis at the time, Black and white Communist Party members marched alongside the nutpickers, helping to win major employer concessions once the police realized they couldn’t jail them all.

The alliance didn’t last, however. Once the strike ended, labor radicals failed to see that Black women’s militance developed from their broader experiences with racism and sexism, particularly housing discrimination.

Racism was not just an attitudinal obstacle to working-class unity. Rather, racial difference shaped capitalism in St. Louis from the very beginning. The narrow focus on racism as a barrier to shop-floor solidarity continues to hinder the left: the old “Negro question” warmed over.

A myopic focus on the workplace also meant that labor organizers failed to anticipate the most urgent threat to working-class Blacks in the immediate postwar decades: urban renewal programs.

“Negro removal by white approval,” as St. Louis activist Ivory Perry dubbed it, would displace hundreds of thousands of families in the 1950s and 1960s. In St. Louis and beyond, labor unions often welcomed urban renewal: either because they believed it would alleviate poverty or more selfishly for the construction jobs that inevitably came with it.

Colorblind Racial Blindness

After World War II, St. Louis politicians replaced explicit references to segregation with the color-blind rhetoric of property values and blight. The city’s 1947 master plan zoned industrial sites away from white, middle-class neighborhoods and forced new “superhighways” through the ghettos. St. Louis used federal funds to raze “slums” on the Northside, one of the few areas Blacks had been able to purchase homes.

Exclusionary zoning and urban renewal left most Black families with two options. They either lived in the remaining slums where absentee landlords and predatory sellers charged more than what housing in middle-class neighborhoods cost or in poorly maintained public housing like the notorious Pruitt-Igoe.

By the late sixties, media coverage of Pruitt-Igoe made St. Louis symbolic of the national “urban crisis.” Architect Oscar Newman, a professor at Washington University of St. Louis, popularized the view that the project failed because tenants abused the property.

To test his theory, Newman wandered the gated enclaves of the Central West End (where the McCloskeys bought their mansion in 1988), concluding that the area’s “defensible space” produced residents’ feelings of security.

St. Louis implemented Newman’s theory by installing hundreds of concrete bollards over the course of two decades. Besides effectively enclosing public space, disciplining the streetscape made it easier for police to preemptively patrol Black neighborhoods.

When such architecture of exclusion fails, vigilante homeowners become the last line of defense for white wealth. “Once again,” historian Robin Kelley writes of the most recent presidential election, “an unstable ruling class drapes itself in white sheets, puts on its badge and brings out its guns.”

To some critics, the insistence that capitalism and racism are intertwined is anachronistic or even un-American. In a review obtusively titled “Is Capitalism Racist?” The New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann accuses Johnson of reducing U.S. history to “variations on racial hierarchy and economic exploitation.” Lemann doubts whether such a “politically charged” book could provide “a politics for the here and now.”

From the social democratic left, historian Jefferson Cowie wonders if Johnson has written himself into a corner, creating the impression of racism and capitalism as twin towers of “an impenetrable fortress.” It’s a story heavy on victims, “without much space to figure out how the world can be changed.”

Cowie’s review appeared in Dissent, where editor emeritus Michael Walzer fired off against the “racial capitalism” school of thought as last year’s antipolice rebellions reached their zenith. In the midst of an historic uprising against racism, Walzer warned against treating race as “a necessary feature of American capitalism.” The struggles for racial equality and economic justice are not the same, Walzer argued, since “capitalism won’t totter as the statues fall.”

True, removing white supremacist statues won’t guarantee racial and economic justice for all. If protesters ever tear down the statue of Thomas Hart Benton in St. Louis, capitalism will still be standing. But while racism and capitalism are not coterminous, they are, in Johnson’s phrase, “organically linked.” To understand the origin of that relationship, look to the policies of removal and extraction that have flowed from St. Louis.

At moments, Johnson does appear to conflate economic exploitation with racial control. In the early twentieth century, the neighboring city of East St. Louis received much of its revenue from licensing saloons and taking payoffs from unlicensed ones. For Johnson, this directly prefigured the police gangsterism found in Ferguson, where fines and fees made up more than 20 percent of the budget according to the Department of Justice’s 2015 investigation.

But a century ago, unlike now, East St. Louis remained overwhelmingly white. Its extortion of saloons was clearly something different from Ferguson’s systematic plunder of Black residents. To equate the two creates a mistaken impression that economic exploitation is reducible to a sweeping logic of racial control.

But Broken Heart is instructive precisely because overall it shows the opposite of what its critics claim to be true. Johnson is no pessimist or crank: again and again he insists that racial capitalism is dynamic but unstable, the messy product of “improvised solutions” to economic and political crises of its own making.

Revival of Resistance

In Silencing the Past, the late Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot famously argued that the 1791 Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” in its time — and remained unthinkable well into the 20th century.

By this Trouillot did not mean that slaveholders failed to anticipate armed revolt by enslaved people. Slaveholders imagined the signs of insurrection everywhere: they wrote the legal codes that protected the institution of slavery, whipped or sold enslaved people for learning to read, and carefully monitored the presence of white Northerners (the “outside agitators” of their day).

Rather, what was “unthinkable” to slaveholders and white historians after, was that insurrectionary violence could be motivated by something other than revenge — the primitive drive to “burn down the house,” as Patricia McCloskey put it. In the McCloskeys’ gated community, as in the revolutionary violence of Haiti, Black people came to confront the system of racial capitalism itself.

In a year defined by the interlocking movements for Black lives, livable housing and safe work, racial capitalism appears to be in crisis once again. St. Louis’s history tells us that the national uprising that brought protesters to the McCloskeys’ gate has been decades in the making.

Beginning in the 1950s, wealthier resi­dents and whole industries abandoned St. Louis for the suburban dream of high property values and low taxes — the logical endpoint for the ideology of propertied whiteness.

With deindustrialization and white flight, St. Louis’ population plunged from nearly 900,000 in 1950 to one-third of that today. By 1970, it joined the list of cash-strapped cities scrambling to cover budget shortfalls by subsidizing corporate redevelopment: luxury condos, stadiums, waterfront shopping.

In Ferguson, the Fortune 500 company Emerson Electric paid just $68,000 in property taxes in 2013, while the city extracted almost $3 million in court costs from some of its poorest residents. The following summer, Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown after stopping the teenager for walking in the street, an offense which carries a $302 fine and for which Black people make up 95% of those charged.

If the McCloskeys put St. Louis on the 2020 election map, it’s their Congresswoman who has a chance to remake the city’s history. In August, Cori Bush, who had worked as a street medic during the Ferguson uprising, defeated a 10-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for Missouri’s 1st congressional district.

In November, Bush became Missouri’s first Black Congresswoman on a platform that included Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, tuition-free college, canceling student debt, and ending cash bail. She has called for reallocating funds from the U.S. warfare state to low-income healthcare, a demand with particular historical resonance given St. Louis’ history as an outpost of settler conquest.

Like the Black Lives Matter movement from which she comes, Bush has revived the spirit of abolition democracy. It is a broad and inclusive program to address, as Johnson writes, “lives, urban and rural, Black and white, made precarious by the disappearance of good work and the inaccessibility of basic social support, the criminal neglect of young minds, and the imperial tragedy of hometowns where military enlistment provides the most reliable road out of town.”

The Force of History

In the months after their armed standoff with protesters, Mark and Patricia McCloskey became minor rightwing folk heroes. As reward for standing their ground, the couple spoke at the Republican National Convention last August, parroting the claim that Democrats want to “abolish the suburbs.”

When St. Louisans marched for Black lives and forced their way down Portland Place in June 2020, Cori Bush was among them. In the couple’s RNC appearance, Mark McCloskey referred to Bush as a “Marxist liberal activist” and a “revolutionary.”

Once again, the couple channelled the paranoia of their slaveholding forebears who failed to contain the Black insurrection they had long anticipated. He described Bush as directing “the mob” to stop at their property, “screaming, ‘you can’t stop the revolution.’”

It may be tempting to dismiss the McCloskeys’ would-be vigilantism as yet another bizarre viral episode in Trumpism’s final months. But the couple’s armed display reveals how land enclosure, white violence, and the spectre of Black revolt have long determined American politics

The “St. Louis gun couple” may have been opportunistic Trump partisans, but they had the full force of history at their backs.

January-February 2022, ATC 216

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