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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Rethinking the Relationship between History and Morality

posted by Jack Kerwick

Those on the conventional right incessantly lament the ignorance of history from which younger generations of Americans suffer.  While it is true that Americans appear to know frighteningly little about their country’s past, perhaps this has something to do with the abuse to which the concept of history has been subjected.    

The very concept of “history” is in an abysmal condition of neglect.  For this, partisans from across the political spectrum are to blame. Much more frequently than not, when those on both the right and the left advocate the teaching of “history,” it isn’t a distinct, autonomous line of inquiry or discipline to which they want people exposed; rather, what they champion is the promotion of their respective political-moral visions under the guise of “history.”  That this is so is readily born out by the titles of some of the more popular contemporary “history” books: A People’s History of America; The Last Best Hope; The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History; A Patriot’s History of The United States, etc.

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In other words, “history” has been reduced to morality.  Those on the left exploit the name of “history” in order to impress upon audiences their notion of an Americaconceived in corruption.  Thus, “history” texts authored by leftists invariably accentuate those passages of our national life that fit most readily into the template of “racism” and “sexism” that they seek to impose upon them.  In contrast, those authored by rightists, while not devoid of all references to some of America’s more oppressive chapters, tend to romanticize our country.  Among the most salient ways in which they seek to obtain this end is by stressing what is commonly called “American Exceptionalism,” the concept that the United States stands alone among the nations of the world in being the only country that has ever been founded upon, not “the accidents of history,” but a universal, self-evident moral truth: the truth that all human beings are possessed of God-given “unalienable rights.” 

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But if history is a distinct discipline, then it is as illegitimate to import moral judgments into it as it is illegitimate to import aesthetic judgments into, say, the study of biology.  Just as the marine biologist looks upon the ocean, not as God’s creation or an artwork, but as the environment that nurtures the organisms on which he sets his sights, so the genuine historian is concerned with informing us of what happened in the past—not what should have happened.  For example, it is proper for the moralist to characterize slavery as “reprehensible” or “evil”; the mode of the historian, on the other hand, is devoid of all such normative terms.

Biographies of, say, Abraham Lincoln, that heap either praise or scorn upon our sixteenth president, although they may be truthful, are not historical.  Lincoln may very well have been among the wisest of men as Harry Jaffa and legions of others insist, or he may have been a deceitful tyrant, as Thomas DiLorenzo and a not insignificant minority of scholars contend.  What we must grasp is that this is a debate that lies outside the province of the historian.  

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If we are in the right in regarding history as a distinct field of inquiry, then it is improper for us at the same time to enlist it in the service of either present or future moral ends.  Most “historians” today actually exploit the past for the sake of advancing a moral or political agenda of one sort or another.  Now, there is nothing illicit about the activity of drawing upon the past in order to illuminate present circumstances; indeed, it is both necessary and desirable that we do as much.  The point, however, is that whatever else we may say of this engagement of mining the past for present reward, we must not say that it is historical. 

Because a person’s very identity is constituted by the events that he’s experienced, it is inevitable that we shall be forever recalling episodes from our pasts.  Yet only if we are determined to divest the concept of history of all meaning will we then conclude from this that each of us is a historian.  If everyone is a historian, then no one is.  Similarly, the examples of virtuous characters from our civilization’s past promise to impart much in the way of moral instruction.  Unless, though, we want to regard “history” texts along exactly the same lines as we tend to regard children’s stories—as sources of moral education and entertainment—we must grant that searching the past for even noble present purposes like the inculcation of excellence is most definitely not an historical enterprise. 

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No, as Michael Oakeshott observed, it isn’t the historian’s interest in the past that distinguishes him as the figure that he is; it is his interest in the past for its own sake that makes him a historian. 

The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that objectivity was a fiction.  Every living organism, he argued, was fundamentally motivated by what he called “the will to power,” the impulse to satiate its needs and desires by dominating its surroundings.  The human being differs from all other living things only insofar as his intelligence is concerned, for humans seek to exploit and subjugate one another not just through brute force, but through what we may call rational coercion. No person will come right out and tell others that he needs for them to believe as he does; this simply would go no distance toward attaining the sought after objective.  Rather, he will do what, according to Nietzsche, philosophers have been doing for as long as they have been around: he will avoid all self-references and appeal only to such “objective” criteria as Reason, Truth, Natural Law, God, and so forth.

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Now, there is much over which to quarrel with Nietzsche.  But his thought is not without its share of insights.  There can be no denying that far too frequently the beliefs that we profess are informed by motives that haven’t anything to do with the search for truth.  Neither can we deny that just as frequently we attempt to hide these motives, from both ourselves and others, by cloaking them with the language of objectivity. 

The appeal to “history,” I hope the reader now recognizes, is but another way that ideologues of one sort or another have done this.       

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 

 

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A Forgotten Black Conservative: A Closer Look at George S. Schuyler

posted by Jack Kerwick

Over the years, the John Birch Society—the organization of which The New American is an organ—has been besmirched by its ideological rivals for all  manner of evil, most prominently of which is the sin of “racism.”  More specifically, given that its membership has always been and remains predominantly white, it is “white racism” with which it has been charged.

However, it is difficult to see how this charge can be made to fit once it is recognized that as far back as the 1960’s, one of the most notable black writers in the country—George S. Schuyler—became a member of JBS.  Actually, Schuyler was among the most astute, courageous, wittiest, and impassioned writers, black, white, or other. 

Of course, that Schuyler was a conservative and a member of JBS is not recognized by many because, regretfully, Schuyler himself is no longer remembered. 

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Born in 1895 inRhode Island, Schuyler spent his formative years inSyracuse,New York.  He served in World War I and, upon being discharged, moved toHarlemwhere he spent the rest of his days until his death in 1977.  Yet during this time, Schuyler enjoyed quite an eventful existence.

Throughout the decade of the 1920’s, he became associated with that circle of artists that history would recall as “the Harlem Renaissance.”  During this same period, interestingly enough, Schuyler also joined the Socialist Party.  However, in his autobiography, Black and Conservative, Schuyler admits that it was from a craving for intellectual stimulation, and not an affinity for socialism, that initially drew him to this organization.  But even though it was only a relatively short while before he became disenchanted with the ideas of his associates, apparently his time as a member was not for naught, for from this juncture onward, Schuyler became an ardent enemy of all things that so much as remotely smelled of communism.  To the end of combating “the red threat,” he employed his skills as a writer for such publications as H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury and The Pittsburg Courier, the largest black newspaper publication inAmerica of which Schuyler was editor from 1922 until 1964. 

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The title of Schuyler’s autobiography, Black and Conservative (1966), is indeed a fitting description, for Schuyler was a conservative. That there were differences of various sorts between the races he never would have dreamt to deny.  But these differences, he insisted, had nothing to do with nature; they were cultural.  To put this point another way, like any good conservative, Schuyler underscored the monumental role that tradition plays in constituting identity.  And in order to show that it was culture or tradition that accounts for differences between black and white Americans, he drew attention to their similarities—likenesses that ordinarily escape casual observers of both races.

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For example, Schuyler repudiated the notion that there was something that can aptly be termed “the Harlem Renaissance”—if it is said to center around a distinctively black art.  He wrote: “Negro art there has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness.”  Slave songs, “the blues,” jazz, and “the Charleston” are alike the creations of blacks, but, as Schuyler notes, they originated with Southern blacks and, as such, are “foreign to Northern Negroes, West Indian Negroes, and African Negroes.  In short, they are as “expressive or characteristic of the Negro race” as “the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders or the Dalmatian peasantry are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race.”

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Within the context ofAmerica, so-called “Negro art” is in reality Eurocentric.  As Schuyler put it, “the Aframerican [sic] is merely a lampblacked [sic] Anglo-Saxon.”  He was not short on substantiation for this claim.

“The dean of the Aframerican literati is W.E.B. Du Bois, a product of Harvard and German universities; the foremost Aframerican sculptor is Meta Warwick Fuller, a graduate of leading American art schools and former student of Rodin; while the most noted Aframerican painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is dean of painters inParisand has been decorated by the French Government.” 

That black American artists are more akin to their white counterparts than either blacks and whites tend to realize is unsurprising once we consider that “the Aframerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white American.”  For instance, “in the homes of the black and white Americans of the same cultural and economic level one finds similar furniture, literature, and conversation.”  Schuyler asks: “How, then, can the black American be expected to produce art and literature dissimilar to that of the white American?”

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What Schuyler believes is true of the black American artist he is convinced is no less true of black Americans generally: their dispositions, tastes, and sensibilities are the products, not of a uniquely “black nature,” but the Eurocentric or Anglo-Saxon cultural traditions in which they were nurtured.  Conservatives, forever mindful of the tradition or culturally constituted character of individual identity, have always regarded the radically individualistic notion of the “self-made man” as a fiction: no one can literally lift himself up by his own bootstraps, for every person is dependent, often in ways of which he is unaware, upon the assistance of others.  Doubtless, Schuyler is of a piece with other conservative thinkers on this score.  But he goes a step beyond this to rebuke the related idea that racial groups can shed the cultural traditions within which their distinguishing features were formed. 

From Schuyler’s discussion of racial issues, conservatives of all races can learn much about their own intellectual tradition.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American   

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American Exceptionalism and Identity Politics Reconsidered

posted by Jack Kerwick

Dean Malik has recently written a piece for American Thinker in which he contrasts what he calls “American exceptionalism” (AE, from this point onward) with “identity politics.”  The former is good, he maintains, while the latter is bad.   

This essay is problematic for a variety of reasons—questionable presuppositions and unfair distortions continually rear their ugly heads.  First, I will focus on Malik’s comments concerning AE.  Next, I will turn to his account of identity politics, with particularly close attention paid to his remarks in connection to what he refers to as “white supremacy.”   

American Exceptionalism (AE)

Interestingly, Malik fails to explicitly define the notion for which his essay is an apology.  Fortunately, this in and of itself doesn’t pose much of an obstacle to engaging his argument, for what he does say coincides closely enough with prevailing understandings of AE.  The idea that Malik appears to champion is the doctrine that America is the only land in all of human history to have been founded upon the principle that such contingencies as race, ethnicity, and religion—considerations that define the character of every other society the world over—are irrelevant to membership in that association that we know as the United States.   

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The historically dubious nature of this statement of America’s founding aside, contra Malik, while the doctrine of AE certainly entails the idea of an America that has always “stood for the promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds, the limitations of social heredity, and…the cruelties of religious intolerance,” it is just as certainly not interchangeable with it. 

Even a society all of whose members recognized the importance of racial, ethnic, and other particular bonds—what Malik disdainfully refers to as “tribal loyalties”—could just as passionately and stridently aspire to ameliorate “hatreds,” privileges owing to “social heredity,” and “the cruelties of religious intolerance.”  Like the Jacobins of the eighteenth century in reply to whose abstract and universalistic ideology Edmund Burke formulated the most eloquent statement of what has since been recognized as conservatism, Malik is guilty of precisely the same charges that Burke leveled against his rivals.  Malik is guilty, not just of error, but of hubris. 

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As Burke observed, by the rationalist abstractions—“the Rights of Man” and the concomitant idea that only those governments erected upon “the consent” of “the People” were legitimate—of the defenders of the French Revolution, every government, however benevolent, stands condemned.  Similarly, if AE refers to something uniquely American, and if this something is America’s “promise of escape from tribal loyalties and hatreds, the limitations of social heredity,” and “the cruelties of religious intolerance,” then what Malik implies is that every other society that has ever existed offers no such relief.  

There is indeed much about Americafor which to be thankful.  My admiration for its distinction as a nation is second to none.  But surely no one believes that what fundamentally distinguishes our country from every other, what renders it “exceptional,” is that we eschew racially, ethnically, and religiously-oriented intolerance while other nations do not.

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America’s founders were overwhelmingly of a single race, a single ethnicity, and a single religion.  They were white, English, and Protestant.  They suffered no delusions regarding their identity, and never could have dreamt of any reason why they should be in the least bit apologetic for it.  The country of which they were pioneers (not “immigrants”) was forged through the very same historical accidents—bloodshed, violence, slavery—that characterized the origins of every other human society, it is true, but because these phenomena assumed an inter-racial character in America, our founders were that much more self-conscious of their distinguishing features than they otherwise would have been had their conflicts and achievements occurred within a racially, ethnically, and religiously homogenous context.

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Neither is there a shred of evidence that our founders saw themselves as creating a nation within which the members of every conceivable racial, ethnic, and religious group could and would co-exist as equal citizens.  Being Christian, it is doubtless correct that they attributed equal worth or equality before God to all persons.  But, contrary to the conventional, politically correct, mushy-minded wisdom of our generation, it is anything but a small step from this belief to the conclusion that there is a universal entitlement to American citizenship. 

Thomas Sowell—a black thinker—once remarked that talk of race more so than that of any other issue taps our rationality.  The stellar intelligence, withering logic, and rigorous reasoning that are brought to bear on other issues are conspicuously absent when it comes to this topic.  To see both that Sowell is correct on this score and that the doctrine of AE is indeed designed to conceal the racial, ethnic, and religious dimensions of the founding and history ofAmerica that its champions haven’t the wherewithal to acknowledge we need look no further than Malik’s exposition. 

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Identity Politics

After all, Malik does contrast AE with what he calls “identity politics.”  Judging from the examples he cites, La Raza, the Congressional Black Caucus, and such “white supremacist” organizations as Jared Taylor’s American Renaissance, to mention but a few, it is clear that the “identity politics” that principally concern him is predominantly racial in nature. 

Malik’s analysis of identity politics warrants some remarks.

First of all, that Americans have always organized for various purposes along racial, ethnic, and religious lines may not in itself justify this practice; it does, however, put the lie to the notion that it is somehow “un-American.” 

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Secondly, no one has so much as tried to establish that there is anything in the least bit morally objectionable about Americans (or anyone) assembling for reasons of race, ethnicity, and/or religion. 

Thirdly, that people feel a closer affinity for their racial, ethnic, and religious brethren no more shows their proclivity for indulging “tribal loyalties and hatreds” and “the cruelties of religious intolerance” than does our partiality toward our own families establish our hatred and intolerance of other families.  Presumably, not unlike virtually everyone else, Malik thinks it is a fine and good thing that we tend to love our own spouses and children more than we love the spouses and children of others.  And we know that he holds patriotism—partiality toward one’s country—to be a virtue.  However, we are left to ask: if the commitments to one’s co-religionists, co-ethnics, and co-racialists are repellent because of the tribalism that they supposedly embody, why aren’t commitments to one’s family and one’s nation not similarly repellant?  Why or how are they not also species of tribalism?

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Fourthly, Malik refers to the likes of Sam Francis and Jared Taylor as “white supremacists.”  “White supremacy,” he contends, is the product, the effect, of minority identity politics.  Interestingly, I think Malik’s observation is astute as far as it goes; the problem is that it only goes so far. 

Francis and Taylor are both white, yes, but neither are “supremacists.”  Malik is arguing in bad faith here.  It is true that Francis and Taylor, being particularly interested as they are in the genetic foundations of human behavior, focus on IQ differences between racial groups. Yet there are a couple things of which to take note here.

The data on which Francis and Taylor center their attention is exactly the same data that every student of IQ accepts—statistics that no one from Richard Herrnstein (a Jew) to Dinesh D’Souza (an Indian) to Thomas Sowell and Walter E. Williams (both black) denies.  If there is anything that can be said to distinguish Francis and Taylor from their peers, it is the dominant role which they assign to biology in their analyses of IQ.  They may very well be incorrect; I for one take exception to their conclusions.  Yet a belief in the error of another’s ways is in no wise incompatible with a respect for his intellectual seriousness.  For Malik, sadly, the two evidently are mutually exclusive.

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Moreover, if Malik really knew anything at all about Taylor and Francis, he would know that even in the terms of their own reading of IQ and race, Taylor and Francis—like most “white nationalists”—think that on average Asians, northern Asians specifically, are intellectually superior to whites.  The Japanese, for example, consistently register a higher average IQ than whites. So, if Malik remains determined to label Taylor and Francis “supremacists,” he should make sure to refer to them as proponents of Asian supremacy. 

Fifth and finally, as Malik himself remarks, what he terms “white supremacy” is a reaction to minority identity politics.  That blacks, Hispanics, and other non-white groups should organize along racial lines for the sake of advancing their collective interests is enough to provoke some measure of racial consciousness within whites.  But when the realization of the ends that racial minorities pursue demands that the government surrender its impartiality with respect to all citizens and substitute for laws that equally bind all of the associates of the legal association that we know as the United States policies designed to benefit non-whites over whites, it is understandable that these same whites should seek to organize similarly. 

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This, incidentally, is exactly the point made by VanderbiltUniversitypolitical science and law professor, Carol M. Swain.  Swain is the author of a couple of books on “white nationalism,” and while she doesn’t identify with this orientation, she is remarkably sympathetic with it.  It is remarkable that she should sympathize with it mostly because Swain is black.  At any rate, she certainly treats it more charitably, more justly, than does Malik.

Americais supposed to be “a nation of laws,” not of men.  What this means is that when the government favors the members of one racial group over those of another, America’s character is corrupted.  Thus, when identity politics is nothing more or less than the enterprise of appropriating government for the sake of racial favoritism, it is an enterprise gone to the bad.  When, however, as in the case of “the white nationalists” that compose the object of Malik’s disdain, as well as, say, black civil rights activists in 1950’s and 1960’s, it is a matter of insuring that government refrain from privileging some racial groups at the expense of others, it is entirely appropriate. 

In these latter cases, though, it isn’t really identity politics at all of which we are speaking.  Rather, it is a movement oriented toward preserving the rule of law.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at American Thinker

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Thinking About Race and the Past

posted by Jack Kerwick

For the most part, ideological rivals of various sorts are divided as much over the past as they are the condition of the present and the shape they would like to impose upon the future: those of a more conservative or traditional bent tend to view the past, America’s past specifically, as a lost “Golden Age,” while leftists think of it as a “Dark Age” pervaded by “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia” and a litany of other sins that fill our “politically correct” catalogue of cardinal offenses. 

Although it is America’s past over which contemporary rightists and leftists typically contend, in what follows I would like to address the past, not (directly) of the nation but, rather, of a particular section—“Chambersburg”—of my hometown. My reasons for doing so are twofold: first, on display in this conflict are exactly those rival and equally dangerous tendencies to romanticize and denigrate the past that find full play on the national stage, but since this locality, being of vastly smaller size than America, supplies us with a significantly less ambiguous subject, focus on it promises to provide us with greater familiarity with them than there otherwise would be; second, among the key issues at stake in the dispute over America’s past is that of race and it is in no small measure the issue germane to present positions on Chambersburg’s past.  

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What is called the “Chambersburg” section of Trenton, New Jersey has a storied past.  For roughly the entirety of the twentieth century, the population of Chambersburg—affectionately referred to as “the ‘Burg” by locals—consisted predominantly (but not solely) of Italian immigrants and their American offspring.  The remainder of its inhabitants descended from other parts of Europe.  This is to say, the neighborhood, not unlike virtually every other part of Trenton at one time, was all white.

This all began to change, I believe, within the last fifteen years or so.  Like all changes involving human events, there is no identifiable first moment from which these changes can be said to have sprung; but I think there are few who would disagree with my claim that it was during the last half of the 1990’s that the ‘Burg began to take a noticeable demographic turn—and for the worse, to hear most whites in the Trenton area tell it.

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The narrative runs something like this: Chambersburg was a beautiful place.  Though a lower middle-class community comprised primarily of relatively inexpensive, modest-sized row homes, it was indeed a true community, a place peopled by largely honest, diligent men and women sharing a common vision of the kind of place most conducive to human flourishing, as they conceived it.  This vision of “the human good” they succeeded to a remarkable degree in realizing, as the ‘Burg’s narrow streets—invariably impeccable—bustled with the finest Italian eateries, from five star restaurants to pizza and steak houses, from bakeries to taverns; “social clubs”; educational institutions, Catholic Churches, and family-friendly parks.  Each year, for over a century, thousands would descend upon “the heart of the ‘Burg’” to participate in “The Feast of Lights,” an originally religious festival intended to honor the Madonna, the Virgin Mary.  Chambersburg was a true community in the sense that its members all knew and looked after one another: so rare was crime, it wasn’t uncommon to spot elderly women sitting on their porches to the wee morning hours on warm summer nights, or walking the streets after dark, free of fear. 

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Now, what has been said of Chambersburg can and has been said of virtually every other neighborhood in the city of Trenton. But what distinguished it is that such things were being claimed for the ‘Burg long after the quality of life in much of the city had dramatically deteriorated.  It is this achievement that endeared it to some, elicited respect from others, and surrounded it with a mystique that arrested the attention of all for decades to follow. 

But since the onset of the racial transformation that overtook it a dozen or so years ago, the ‘Burg has been dying a slow death.  Today, practically the only thing that remains of the old neighborhood is the name, for as most of its native inhabitants have fled, so too have the myriad of civic institutions that they created become essentially defunct.

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This, at any rate, is what we may term “the Golden Age” account of Chambersburg.  We would do well to bear in mind that in referring to it as such, I don’t for a second mean to suggest that it is without truth; quite the contrary, there is no small measure of truth in it.  Yet it is also the case that insofar as it is saturated in nostalgia, thus omitting features of daily life in the Chambersburg of old that lack the pleasantness of those recounted, it is not only less than fully honest but, moreover, it diminishes what truth it contains.

You see, the ‘Burg managed to preserve its mono-racial character well after most of Trenton’s other white neighborhoods went the way of the dinosaur.  This also captures in part its appeal.  At the same time, however, it is just this characteristic that informs a rival narrative of the ‘Burg, what we will call “the Dark Age” account. 

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It isn’t just that blacks and browns happened to be absent from Chambersburg; their absence was the product of a design whose central ingredients were fear and intimidation.  The aversion of blacks and, later, Puerto Ricans, to the ‘Burg was well justified, for there is no shortage of evidence—most of it anecdotal, some of it documented—that their ventures there were routinely greeted with varying degrees of hostility, from cold stares to verbal abuse to violent attacks.  Chambersburg was “a community” all right, but a “community” of “racists” of the most overt kind, a community whose members were unabashedly, unapologetically opposed to “the Other,” especially—but, importantly, not only—when the Stranger lacked a European (i.e. Caucasoid) pedigree.       

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This last point must be stressed.  It isn’t just racial minorities who view the ‘Burg of yesteryear as a boiling cauldron of bigotry; nor is it just the leftist guardians of “Politically Correct” orthodoxy who regard it as an emblem of a benighted American past.  Local whites of modest economic background, vaguely conservative temperamentally, if not philosophically or ideologically, are similarly contemptuous of the old ‘Burg.  A Swede, no less than a sub-Saharan African, I have had it told to me, would be set upon for walking the streets of Chambersburg, for unless one was Italian, one was unwelcome. 

A few years ago, a mentally retarded white man who was born and raised in Chambersburg was ambushed by a group of blacks just a couple blocks from his home. His injuries—which included the loss of sight in one eye—were severe enough to guarantee him a trip to the hospital.  A local bar held a charity to raise funds for his hospital bills as well as information regarding his assailants.  During this time, newspapers relayed the reminiscences of locals who, shocked and outraged by the attack on this poor soul who hadn’t harmed a fly, longed for “the good ole’ days” when this sort of episode would have been unthinkable.  My uncle (who, interestingly enough, frequented the bar that hosted the charity event) wasted no time in categorically repudiating the notion that Chambersburg was ever anything even remotely resembling the pristine images in the terms of which it was being described: The residents of the ‘Burg, he emphatically pronounced, “were nasty people.”  My late father, from whose lips such fashionable buzz words as “intolerance,” “bigotry,” “racist,” “xenophobia” and the like never sprung, likewise detested the ‘Burg, but mostly because of the arrogance and stupidity that he attributed to its inhabitants.  He once laughed that in assuming the physical appearance and mannerisms of a Soprano before The Sopranos, the typical, Italian-American (male) resident of Chambersburg is a cheap caricature of himself: “If he were to be believed, there must be tens of thousands of Mafioso living in the ‘Burg!”  And that criticisms of these sorts weren’t the function of a merely “anti-Italian” prejudice, whatever that could be, is born out by the fact that people of Italian descent are among those who have made them.

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Like its optimistic counterpart, “the Dark Age” account of Chambersburg contains its share of truth. 

Yet, as it has been my intention to show by sharing these reflections on a quasi-legendary neighborhood from my home town, both the standard conservative disposition to romanticize the past as well as the leftist tendency to denigrate it are of limited value.  Each provides a service in bringing to our attention features of the past that the other threatens to suppress, but insofar as they mutually deny one another, recognizing only themselves as the authoritative repository of “history,” their respective recollections are alike distortions.  However, as with all “historical” enterprises, particularly those that involve—as “the history” of Chambersburg, like “histories” of the United States, involve—race relations, the path toward an approximation of the truth lies in avoiding both of these extremes. 

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The characterization of Chambersburg as a bustling community that lies at the heart of the Golden Age account is not wide of the mark, yet no less accurate is the Dark Age account on which the ‘Burg is construed as unfriendly territory to non-whites.  But these concessions being made, some qualifications are in order.

First, while Chambersburg had none of the crime characteristic of some other neighborhoods, much less that which typifies daily life in today’s “inner cities,” it nonetheless was never the crime-free zone that it is often made out to be. In fact, it was unlike most other areas in having a small, but moderately influential, element of organized crime.  Albeit, the presence of “the Mafia” in the ‘Burg was greatly exaggerated, and by no one more so than some of its own residents, especially its young males who, from no doubt an impoverished conception of manhood coupled with a Hobbesian desire to deter threats to themselves, exploited the imagined link between Chambersburg and the mob.  What “mobsters” dwelt in the ‘Burg were, overwhelmingly, not real mobsters at all, a loose assortment of punks, bookies, numbers runners, and small time drug dealers all of whom failed to leave the mark on the underworld for which they aimed.  Even those very few whose names registered on the rosters of the New York and Philadelphia crime families barely did so and could never realistically dream that they would be remembered in the annals of mob history. 

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Second, it is correct that outsiders were viewed warily and racial minorities, blacks specifically, were traditionally unwelcomed.  But it is not the case that one had to be of Italian descent to be accepted in the ‘Burg; whites of non-Italian European lineages could not only travel unmolested, they lived there for as long as there had been a Chambersburg.  As for non-whites, it would be at the cost of the truth to deny that innocent blacks and browns had been unjustly, and even outrageously, treated upon entering Chambersburg, the prey to hordes of its white predators who would chase and sometimes subject them to merciless beatings.  Yet it would be a gross mistake to confuse what never amounted to more than the unruly conduct of pockets of adolescents and low-lives with that of the hard working and law abiding citizens that comprised the vast majority of Chambersburg.  Another error of judgment would be to dramatize the extent to which blacks and Hispanics were excluded from the neighborhood: the first black family moved into the ‘Burg as far back as the 1960’s—before the race riots that would engulf Trenton and the country—and there were some Puerto Ricans who reportedly lived there as well during this time.  A final mistake is to avoid the assumption—all too common in our “Politically Correct” age—that whatever problems minorities encountered in the ‘Burg were necessarily unsolicited, the mere function of a raw, irrational pathology called “white racism.”  

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From what I have been able to determine, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the ‘Burg began to acquire for itself its reputation vis-à-vis non-whites—exactly that time period immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. when legions of black youths, as well as some who weren’t so young, exploded in a protracted orgy of violence that irrevocably changed the city of Trenton for the worse. Whites were randomly targeted for attack and the business district downtown was torched.  Because of the violence, Trenton’s only high school was closed.  As a result, masses of white teenagers from both Chambersburg as well as other white neighborhoods from within the city and nearby suburbia congregated at Columbus Park, a long staple of the ‘Burg located on a thoroughfare that served as an unofficial borderline between black and white Trenton for decades.  A group of blacks, evidently emboldened by the fear that the rioting had succeeded in inspiring in whites throughout the rest of the city (and the nation) threatened to cross the street into Chambersburg.  The white kids at Columbus Park were having none of it, a point they managed to convey in no uncertain terms by forming a human wall at the park’s edge and issuing the warning that entry into the ‘Burg promised to be a one-way trip.  Stories circulated over the years that blacks’ attempt to call the whites’ bluff landed them in the sewer—yes, the sewer!—but whether this happened, I have never been able to verify.  What is established is that the troubles that black rioters visited upon much of the rest of the city were kept far from Chambersburg, as men and, believe it or not, even some women—and elderly women to boot!—encircled the streets of their community armed with baseball bats, golf clubs, handguns, and rifles.

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It was from this series of events, I believe, that the ‘Burg began to acquire its quasi-legendary character. 

Over the years, in misguided efforts at bravado, young males—usually teenagers—have sought to avail themselves of and strengthen the reputation of Chambersburg bequeathed to them by previous generations by targeting those blacks and browns found passing through their neighborhood.  However, their attempts to recapture “the glory days” of their fathers who saved the community from riotous barbarians each failed singularly and, in truth, were bound to do so.  

First of all, the sheer delight experienced by far too many of the ‘Burg’s gatekeepers from the ‘60’s over the prospect of actually harming those that dared to cross the invisible line into their territory casts in doubt the premise that they were “glory days” at all. Furthermore, their progeny were two-bit thugs whose prey consisted largely (even if not exclusively) of outnumbered minority members who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: it is one thing to threaten the use of and even employ force to stop a mob with designs to set your home on fire, but another thing entirely to do the same with respect to a black kid or two simply because they are passing by your home.

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Today, Chambersburg is a different world from what it once was.  Blacks and browns are no longer fearful of the whites who once resided there, it is true, but this owes to the fact that, for the most part, there are no longer any such whites.  This, though, doesn’t mean that the minorities who are now a majority in the ‘Burg are free of all fear of violence; quite the contrary, for the violence with which they live in the present and which they inflict upon one another is at once more pervasive and intense than any that they suffered in the past at the hands of whites.  The ‘Burg’s once clean streets are strewn with garbage and its once tidy homes are frequently dilapidated.  Law-abiding residents will no longer sit on their front porches, much less walk the streets, whether during the day or night, and gang activity is on the rise.  Vestigial traces of the old ‘Burg can be found in the forms of a couple of Italian restaurants and bakeries, but with the coroner’s report no one takes exception: the old ‘Burg is dead, and in its stead lies a new entity, but something bordering on another corpse. If blacks’ and Hispanics’ prevalence in Chambersburg can be hailed as a “victory” over the “oppression” of the past, then it is a victory that is bitter sweet, for their penetration of this “glass ceiling” left them and the population that they displaced shredded by countless shards of glass.

As with Chambersburg, so with everything else in this life: Golden Ages exist in Heaven, Dark Ages in Hell, but in this world, neither the unadulterated optimism attending to the former nor the dreary pessimism belonging to the latter have any place, for it is a mode of existence that invites both tears and laughter.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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