Black Patriotism, Then and Now
with Heather Mac Donald
Given this country’s history of slavery and oppression, is patriotism possible for black people in the United States? For most of our history, I think black people would have been well within their rights to say, “No.” Frederick Douglass said as much in his great speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Addressing the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass said, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” Not only would it be impossible for an enslaved people to celebrate Independence Day, he says, it would be cruel to expect them to do so.
Douglass spoke those words 170 years ago, and in some sense they remained applicable well into the middle of the twentieth century. In the years since the civil rights movement, though, black Americans have entered the “grand illuminated temple of liberty” on their own two feet as full citizens. And it was the constitutional framework established by the founders that enabled us to do so. The liberation of black people in this country is a continuation of the American project and an expression of, yes, its greatness. So I believe black patriotism is not only possible, I believe it is necessary. It’s appropriate, then, that this post comes on the heels of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., who even in his most radical moments saw America’s principles, if not all of its practices, as worthy of preservation.
In this excerpt from my conversation with Heather Mac Donald, we talk about the historical trajectory that took black Americans from bondage to freedom. Her recent readings in African American literature seem to have given her a new understanding of the obstacles faced by black people from the Colonial period through the twentieth century. And though Heather understands why even today black people might feel conflicted about the Fourth of July, the two of us agree that black and white Americans (and many others) are equal inheritors of the traditions of the U.S. and the West itself.
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HEATHER MAC DONALD: I also hope, Glenn, that you have promoted your fantastic speech from the National Conservatism Conference that you can read, I hope on your Substack, but also probably at First Things for people who aren't subscribers. And that's one of the great American speeches. So you should be shamelessly flogging that on air.
GLENN LOURY: Okay, well, why don't we do a little bit of flogging right now, Heather. What did you find so wonderful about that speech? This is a speech I gave to the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida last year. And it was published in First Things magazine, and I have, of course, a link to it at the Substack. But how come you like it so much?
Well, number one, it was just extraordinarily eloquent and wise. And I would love to know how long it took you to write it, because I would have been struggling for months to come up with language of that clarity. But as I wrote you by email after hearing it on the broadcast, we don't really deserve you, because the spirit of magnanimity and the willingness to take a broader view of the United States and see yourself as part of it and to portray the fundamental essence of America in its principles rather than its actual lived behavior for so many centuries, I thought, was just extraordinarily open-minded.
I've been on a listening jag through Audible, which is such a great, great technology, I have to say. It's like being a child again and being read to. I carry my smartphone around my house listening. But I've been reading and rereading some of the classics of black literature, whether it's Native Son or Du Bois or Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass—one of his many autobiographies—Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver. And I have to say— and also the fantastic Manchild in the Promised Land.
Yeah, Claude Brown.
Right, Claude Brown. That reading inclines me in a little direction, I have to say, towards the 1619 Project. Not towards its historiography, which I think has been extraordinarily discredited, but simply in its claim that America still isn't fully accounting for the racism of its past that continued far longer than I think the conservative narrative takes into account.
You know, the Trump administration at the end of its term, came out with the 1776 Report that was meant to be a rebuttal to the 1619 Project. And it is sort of locus classicus of the conservative narrative about American racism, which is that we paid very heavily, paid penance through the Civil War, with the 600,000 lives lost, which you mentioned in your National Conservatism speech. And despite centuries and decades of hypocrisy, that eventually we did give meaning to our founding principles.
Well, that is true. Nevertheless, what struck me the most in reading these great twentieth-century works, and nineteenth-century when you're looking at Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, is just the sheer pettiness and cruelty of white Americans for so long. Just gratuitous humiliation of blacks, not just in the South but in the North. There's a writer, Gene Dattle, who has written a lot on Southern labor history and the history of cotton. And he wrote a book called Reckoning with Race that shows that the North should not be at all exempt from the criticism that we directed at the South. In the pre-Colonial period, post-Colonial period, it was busy disenfranchising blacks. And that sort of racial contempt obviously lasted well into the late twentieth century.
So anyway, to me it has been both disturbing and also extraordinary that blacks are willing to celebrate the Fourth of July. Because as far as I'm concerned, I can well understand people continuing Frederick Douglass's strong objections in the nineteenth century. So, while I would say that today we are absolutely different, to acknowledge the persistence of gratuitous sadism and gratuitous nastiness on the part of whites for so long does not mean that we are that country today. I do not think so. I think black privilege is the reality today. Nevertheless, the spirit of your speech was generous and open-minded, and as I say, in some sense, we don't deserve it.
Well, that's very kind, what you have to say in a laudatory manner about me personally. And I might just return the favor by saying you really read those books, and that is quite to your credit. It means you're a serious intellectual who's engaged with your culture at a deep level. You're not just popping off. You're not just a pundit. You're, as I say, a serious intellectual. So hats off to you. But I'll say for my part, yeah, the speech was called “Whose Fourth of July?” when I initially drafted something that was in the City Journal from which I extended to make my remarks at the National Conservatism Conference. “Whose Fourth of July?” And I had Frederick Douglass in mind. I said in 1852, when he gave that speech, it was a good question.
It was a pretty good question. I say, in the year 2022, it's ours. It's our Fourth of July. I say that as a black American. And that was the sort of starting point for, you know, slavery was awful. It was awful. It was awful. Jim Crow. Slavery was awful. It was a holocaust. It was deserving of every bit of condemnation that it has received. On the other hand, the Civil War. On the other hand, the intellectual and moral framework that made possible the abolitionist movement and Emancipation. Those are the fruit of the West. Those are made possible by the framework, as Lincoln recognized, that the framers of the U.S. Constitution created.
I mean, the institutions did have their say, at the end of the day. And we African Americans are an inheritor of that Western tradition. This is my tradition. It's the only tradition I know. I have no place to go but here. This is my home, going back many generations. So I say, this gratuitous standoffishness that many woke intellectuals reflexively embrace from the American project, as if it weren't our project and as if we weren’t embedded within something of world historic significance. I mean, the greatest force for human liberty in the history of mankind. That's what the United States of America, this great republic, is. I can say that without gainsaying any of the things that you said about the gratuitous meanness and despicable failure to acknowledge the humanity of my fellow black people, well into the twentieth century. So you know, where we're on the same page.
But again, I just have to stress, it is a choice what you are saying. And I completely agree. Everything that the left purports to stand for today, and it's one mass of roiling hypocrisies, but it purports to stand for tolerance and openness. Those are exclusively Western concepts. No other civilization came up with the idea of human rights, of equal rights, of tolerance, of freedom from government oppression. So that is completely true. And so the left would be nowhere without the West. I mean, let's be honest: Good luck staging a gay rights parade in Lagos today, or in many parts of the third world. It's not going to happen.
Nevertheless, I still say, if I were focused on the past as a black person, I understand the anger. Now, I think what we need to do is have a sharp line, and obviously the left's project is to dissolve this line and say that all racial disparities today are both the result of the past and of present discrimination. Now, whether our racial disparities today, the extent to which they are the result of clear and obvious discrimination is a complicated historical project. But to say that they are the result of present discrimination, I think, is patently counterfactual, when there's not a single mainstream institution in the United States today that is not twisting itself into knots to hire and promote as many blacks as possible. When you have the white establishment engaged in this ritual self-flagellation about phantom racism and unwilling to speak honestly about the pathologies of inner-city culture that are what I think overwhelmingly drive ongoing racial disparities.
And you address that in your speech as well. So it's a question of whether we should be teaching black students to go around with a chip on their shoulder by looking at the past. Which as I say, if I did that, I would be angry, too, because it's not just slavery. In one sense, slavery is old hat at this point. What was so striking about these twentieth-century works was just the— Oh, and also Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now, that's very little actually about race relations, but just an extraordinary insight into human relationships between the sexes and generations. But again, you just think, “Who are these white people?” I mean, one could almost take the left-wing critical race theory to say that their identity must somehow be based on scorning blacks, because the scorn was so frequent. So that is just to say that that's my reading of history, but it is not my reading of the present.
Well, I think the irony will not be lost on some people that Heather Mac Donald, the Darth Vader of crime and policing studies in some quarters, is here sounding like Nikole Hannah-Jones, as she's puzzled at the magnanimity of one Glenn Loury. Nikole, in her opening essay for the 1619 Project, as you know, starts by being puzzled at her father's patriotism. How could her father love his country? You seem to be asking in so many words, how could I be so generous? Anyway, irony. I was going to say that everything is not quid pro quo and a counting of the sums and who's winning and how much harm. Some of it is about grace. Some of it is about embracing a spiritual thing.
Hey Glenn, thanks for sharing your insights again. Regarding patriotism, I served 4 years active duty in the military and saw some God awful countries in Middle East and eastern EU. Later in my private sector career, i traveled through EU and Asia. USA is far from perfect but it sure beats at least 95% of the rest of the world in my personal experience and view. Also, Glenn, check out Vince Ellison’s piece on Dem’s slavery practices over the centuries. Ty again.
I should be noted that it tool a long time for white Americans to accept black Americans as equals, because it took just as long for English Americans to accept German Americans or in my case Irish Americans. The small town my mother came from had two Catholic churches. One for the Irish and one for the Germans. Love Jesus but the Irish aren't welcome! And vice versa. Pretty hard to move on to equality for people who don't look like you when you hate people for no reason, who's only difference three generations after immigration, is their surname. But I agree with Mr. Lowery's assessment that it was the founding principles of Western Philosophy in the Constitution that in the course of time, resulted in the improvement of our society for the various white Europeans and in time the Blacks, Hispanics, Natives and Asians. If not for that we may have gone fully down the road of the Chinese, Russian or German Pogroms to eliminate and purify our country. I am thankful daily that even though we are far from perfect, that we are at least working to be better. Even the result of the current "woke" movement will likely result in a positive change to our country as it is dialed back to reality.