1864 vs. 1989: Revolution and Race in America and Modern Europe

Parable with a Skull by Jaroslav Rona (Prague, 1993)

Parable with a Skull by Jaroslav Rona (Prague, 1993)

On January 17, 1989, during demonstrations in Prague marking the 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czech novelist Bohumil Hrabal wrote: “Maybe the old gods have died, but new gods are born, who have to pay the price.” Revolution is a Promethean burden, a tax levied in blood and land. If paid in full, a revolution can be successful, even heroic. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe progressed relatively smoothly with the help of land redistribution programs following the collapse of communism and the genocide of the region’s largest ethnic minority population under Hitler.

The American Civil War, however, was the opposite. The Civil War was fought for a number of complex reasons, though slavery remained the banner issue, yet the slaves themselves were largely excluded. The Civil War effectively killed off the landed white lower class, replacing it with a non-land-owning emancipated slave population, in which only the men eventually received three-fifths of the vote, while women everywhere were still unable to vote, leaving the country’s government in the hands of a minority, primarily white male population.

In essence, the 1989 revolutions provided a comparatively ethnically and economically homogeneous population with land ownership and political rights through a seemingly simple, bloodless process. Conversely, in America, the North won the blood-soaked Civil War and effectively ended slavery as a legal institution, yet ultimately lost the revolution by failing to enact a policy of inclusion, instead entrenching slavery in the country’s cultural make-up. The effect of these revolutions, their successes, and their failures, can still be seen to resonate in the modern struggles of the United States and European Union today, while the region’s differing histories have proven predictive of the differing ethnic and economic tensions that have developed in the decades and centuries since.

There are far more differences between 20th-century Eastern Europe and 19th-century America than there are similarities. The greatest difference, however, is America’s massive and rapid population, territorial, and economic expansion. Whereas Europe’s population during the 20th century suffered heavy losses due to WWII and genocide under Hitler, 19th-century America was booming. In 1803, the American population totaled just six million. Fifty years later, following the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida, Texas, and Oregon, as well as the cessation of lands from Mexico, the country’s population had climbed to twenty-six million.

As the country expanded, the differences between the North and South became more apparent. In the North, the economy become more industrialized, while the lifestyle became more urban and the population more dense. Railroad and canal infrastructure was expanding, as was Yankee Protestantism, which professed the ideals of women’s rights, abolition, temperance, and education. The South, on the other hand, had a colonial economic structure. Like Eastern Europe, which had served as the Soviet Union’s breadbasket, the South’s economy was agrarian and produced primarily cotton and tobacco, along with other crops it exported to the North. The slave industry was integral to generating the level of agricultural production needed to sustain the country’s growth, yet as the North’s industrialized economy and modern educational and morality systems evolved, the North, now less economically dependent on its southern neighbors, began to look down on the slave culture, the dearth of modern ideals, and the cultural differences as backward. The country was moving in two very different directions and slavery had become the catalyst for a wider conflict.

In 1831, a slave in Virginia named Nat Turner led what would turn out to be the bloodiest slave rebellion in American history. Eloquently proclaiming religious visions, he mobilized a number of local slaves in the dead of night to slay 55 white slaveholders. Nat Turner would not be the future of the anti-slavery movement, however. The abolition movement was widely popular in the North and was opposed in the South in the form of states’ rights movements and, ultimately, secession. Some Southerners saw secession as a new American revolution modeled after 1776; some believed it would be peaceful, some held that it was legal and constitutional, yet all seceding states strengthened their standing militias. The confusion was duly noted, as one abolitionist called secession “the oddest revolution that History has yet seen,” while others considered it a logical contradiction to carry out a revolution in defense of slavery. Whatever the reason for slavery’s importance, be it the terror among the white slaveholding population sparked by Nate Turner and his ilk, the cultural importance of slaves as both laborers and currency in the South, or its convenience as a wedge issue between the rapidly diverging North and South, the revolution was quickly taken from the hands of the slaves and transformed into the figurehead of the Civil War.

While a small number of former slaves would fight alongside the abolitionists, they were largely fought over as one would fight over a right to property. They were generally excluded from both the war and the outcome: white American soldiers represented them in the fight, and when those white Americans died, the vacancies they left in American society were not filled by the newly emancipated slave population. To make matters worse, the South was ravaged by the Civil War. Plantations were burned to the ground and countless young men were killed, which only served to create further resentment toward the newly freed black community.

The Ku Klux Klan developed during Reconstruction, where terror became a commonplace tactic for harassing the black population, which was worsened by the lack of Union police presence. Just as the KKK still exists, methods of tacitly sanctioned harassment towards African-Americans have persisted in various forms of structural violence, including police brutality and racial profiling. One can hardly look to the news in America today without seeing reports of alleged and convicted wrongful death, assault, and harassment of African-American men and women at the hands of police officers in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, or Waller county, with long, profound histories of extreme racial persecution and bias.

By not creating programs allowing emancipated slaves to widely achieve land ownership; access to education and viable employment; and basic, inviolable civil rights, the United States failed them at every turn. These problems can still be seen today in the enormous racial, class, and economic gaps that still exist. A recent study determined that, in America today, the top 160,000 families control as much wealth as the bottom 145 million families. Certainly this divide can’t fall along hard racial divisions: all white vs. all black. But there are extensive data indicating significant and persistently lower levels of income and employment (even when controlling for education levels), as well as access to higher education and health care, for blacks than for whites in the United States. Moreover, black men are incarcerated or die at a young age at alarmingly high rates. A recent study of cities with sizable African-American populations has determined that, in New York city, almost 120,000 black men are missing from daily life, largely due to one of two above-stated reasons; in the entire country, the infamous Ferguson, Missouri has the single highest rate, with 40 black men out of every 100 missing. These numbers are astonishing and only scrape the surface of some of the serious defects endemic to the American system. However, these problems differ starkly from those that developed since the European post-communist revolutions that began in 1989.

The 1989 revolutions, headed by workers’ unions that both represented and mobilized the general population, such as the famous Polish Solidarity, saw the creation of politically savvy states as former Soviet Republics eagerly broke free of the crumbling Soviet Union, with some even joining the European Community (later the European Union), while the eastward expansion of NATO followed soon after. Today, the EU suffers from a different set of debt and financial problems than America’s deeply entrenched vertical class and racial problems, further exacerbated by a meddling Moscow, uncertainty in the natural gas market, and a far-from quiet Eastern front. Moreover, the EU finds itself further stressed by sharply rising xenophobia amidst its previously homogeneous population catalyzed by an influx of immigrants and refugees of predominately Mediterranean origin, including policy crises over their handling, as well as a growing number of terrorist attacks and violent clashes in its cities, all of which are prompting further political dissonance as Nationalist and Populist parties on the far right gain traction.

While Hitler’s ethnic cleansing may have temporarily eased the threat of ethnic tensions in the early days of the EU, it also led to the creation of a system and society ill-equipped to handle today’s problems. Thankfully, there are democratizing forces available far preferable to Hitler’s methods for addressing these crises as they develop. The advent of social media and spread of affordable Internet access has enabled disenfranchised individuals to reengage. Recently in the US, the horrifying murder of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in South Carolina was filmed and shared on a smart phone by a Dominican immigrant. Across the country, protestors have organized gatherings where they stood holding signs proclaiming “Black lives matter!” and “I can’t breathe.” Others shared stories from small towns few had heard of, stories of young men and women who died in police custody after wrongful arrests, demanding investigations and justice. In Europe, the hashtag #JeSuisAhmed, in reference to Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim French police officer killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack, spread alongside #JeSuisCharlie, sparking a wider discussion about Islam, immigration, and racism in French society.

Across America and Europe, tensions are developing that show the need for societal overhaul, harkening back to the days of of the last rounds of revolution and the ways they failed to secure the future. Integration, reform, and equality are hard-wrought goals involving time, sacrifice, and the expansive redistribution of opportunity. There’s no heroism in an easy win, even less in a win that that came from walking across the backs of others and pretending not to see. So many problems remain to be dealt with in the current systems, in both America and the EU. Both institutions were founded on similar principles, whether represented by America’s founding fathers or Polish Solidarity, i.e., to establish a place where individuals had rights to government representation, to a living wage, and to a humane existence that included protections of fundamental personal freedoms and human and civil rights. Making the voice of the minority heard is the first step toward realizing the revolutions that should have been, toward real integration and recognition of rights for the entire population, regardless of color, class, or creed.


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