Walter Johnson has the title of Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His title should be Moonbat Professor of Race-Mongering. Johnson’s latest screed is entitled The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. St. Louis, according to the blurb on the Amazon webpage for Johnson’s book, “exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation’s past.” Through Johnson’s looking glass, he sees the city near where he grew up as a microcosm of the nation’s inherent evils. Johnson’s thesis is that enslavement of blacks in the United States did not end with the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery. Slavery continues to this day, according to Johnson, in the form of what he calls “racial capitalism.”
In an interview with the Harvard Gazette about his book, Johnson explained that “what I try to chart in the book is a series of those kinds of racial capitalist formations, the way exploitation is justified and shaped by notions of difference, and how those patterns of exploitation then lead to the ossification and the deeper sedimentation, the materialization of differences between differently racialized groups. I’m particularly concerned in this book with the different effects of imperialism, social marginalization, class marginalization, and racial marginalization. It’s really a plea for a particularly rigorous accounting of the way that the history of the United States has produced a kind of a sedimentation of racially stipulated inequality.” What a bunch of pseudo-intellectual gibberish.
In truth, Johnson’s book uses simplistic 2020 identity politics standards to judge America’s complicated past. Johnson compresses American history into an oppressor versus oppressed narrative of capitalist exploitation and racial domination by the white ruling class. He turns even Abraham Lincoln into a cardboard villain motivated by “white supremacist, imperialist, and removalist” priorities. And to support his narrative that such exploitation of blacks by a racially capitalistic system continues into the 21st century, Johnson perpetuates the fiction that Ferguson Missouri police murdered an unarmed black man who was about to surrender himself, Michael Brown.
The New York Times, not surprisingly, gave Johnson’s book a positive review. The New York Times, after all, launched its own discredited revisionist history known as the 1619 Project, which posits that American history and exceptionalism can only be understood through the lens of slavery. “Johnson is a spirited and skillful rhetorician, juggling a profusion of historical facts while never allowing the flame of his anger to dim,” the reviewer wrote.
More accurately, Johnson is a spirited and skillful propagandist for social justice movements, whose books and articles deserve an F as historical works. It is intellectually dishonest, for example, that his 528-page book purporting to trace the history of Missouri leaves out any mention of George Washington Carver. Carver was born a slave in Missouri in 1860 and went on to earn a master’s degree and become a leading agricultural scientist and innovator.
Carver was not enslaved by racial capitalism. He was liberated by education and the freedom afforded by a capitalist society to reap the rewards of his creative mind. “I would never allow anyone to give me money, no difference how badly I needed it. I wanted literally to earn my living,” Carver once said. This Missourian also said, “Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.” Many decades later, Walter Johnson is using the concoction of “racial capitalism” as an excuse for failure.
Real slavery existed from time immemorial, untethered to any particular economic system. Slave-like conditions still exist in some parts of the world today, notably in Communist North Korea and China as well as in several African countries. One does not have to deny the historical injustices against blacks that have occurred in the United States to persuasively argue that blacks have made substantial strides forward under America’s capitalist system since the United States abolished slavery more than a century and a half ago.
The phrase “racial capitalism” was used originally to describe the system specific to apartheid South Africa. The late Cedric J. Robinson, who was a professor of political science and black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, took the phrase “racial capitalism” and blew it up into a general indictment of global capitalism, which he believed was dependent upon slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. Walter Johnson has followed in Robinson’s footsteps. In an article he wrote for a forum in memory of Robinson that appeared in the Boston Review in 2018, Johnson asserted, “The history of racial capitalism, it must be emphasized, is a history of wages as well as whips, of factories as well as plantations, of whiteness as well as blackness, of ‘freedom’ as well as slavery.”
Johnson, in other words, does not believe there are any differences of consequence in the conditions that blacks have faced in America before and after the Civil War, because blacks, he argues, remain the slaves of racial capitalism. He dismisses the progress that America has made, admittedly with some fits and starts, towards a freer, more inclusive society. Indeed, as far as Johnson is concerned, black slavery will only end when the current capitalist system and white privilege are replaced by his radical notion of a just society.
Walter Johnson is the typical leftwing professor ashamed of his own “white privilege.” He ignores the success of the many black entrepreneurs, past and present, who have thrived in our capitalist system. Instead, Johnson conjures up a nightmarish image of a country controlled by white capitalists oppressing blacks as if they were still slaves. Johnson has abandoned any pretense of being a bona fide historian. He is a social justice charlatan.
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