The old world is dying,
and the new world struggles to be born;
now is the time of monsters.
— Antonio Gramsci
Iowa is one of the whitest of the United States.
But what does being nice mean in our explosive reality? In Iowa?
One common version of Midwest Nice, sadly and unsurprisingly, is inclined to value restraint over action and critique, and thereby accept the conditions that led to the current rebellion. The largest uprising in the US since the 1960s, this rebellion shows a growing refusal to accept murders like those of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and others. The impunity by which murders like this are carried out, and the ongoing pressure of white supremacy and racial capitalism that they reflect, has led to a full-on rebellion throughout Minnesota, Iowa, the nation, and the world. And like Cornel West recently reminded us,
I thank God that we have people in the streets. Can you imagine this kind of lynching taking place and people are indifferent? People don’t care? People are callous? [Or] you have just a few people out there with signs?
As the coronavirus exacerbates issues inherent in racial capitalism, and as colonialism accelerates climate change, pressure builds. People are refusing to accept a status quo that reflects such a pervasive, ongoing, and violent white supremacy. As Iowans, we play a role in these systemic issues. As author Phil Christman wrote, “Midwestern history is a study in racial quarantine, enforced by banks, real estate sales, neighborhood covenants, city councils and police.” It is time to rethink Iowa Nice. As one protester said on the evening Minnesotans burned down the precinct building that employed George Floyd’s murderers, “This is a turning point. It has to be.”
Of the ongoing beautiful trouble, some of the most powerful is that which links the individual and the immediate to the social and systemic. One example was artist Dustin Klein when he projected George Floyd’s image on a Robert E. Lee monument in Virginia.
Most Confederate monuments like this one were constructed during the early 1900s, a time of rising nativism and white supremacy. The monuments were not built simply to honor the (treasonous Confederate) soldiers, or for that usual glorification of war that is so central to giving US identity meaning. Rather, these monuments were built specifically to promote a narrative of white supremacy. They did this by rewriting the southern past as somehow great, monument-worthy even, and pretending its secession was done for a worthy “lost cause”. This lost cause myth claims southern states were fighting to preserve their “noble” way of life. This narrative asked the country to respect individual property rights more than protect social welfare, and in doing so to embrace a system of power relations named white supremacy. More than steel and concrete, these monuments are made of, and reflect, a battle of narratives and ideas that didn’t end with the Civil War.
Iowa, of course, played a key role in the Union victory that ended chattel slavery. More Iowans in uniform died than their counterparts in most other Union states. It might seem surprising, then, that Iowa has not one but two of its own Confederate monuments. And unlike most monuments built during the early 1900s nadir of race relations, Iowa’s Confederate monuments were built in the last few decades. Their recent construction is perhaps less surprising, if not still disturbing, when considering these monuments are making a narrative appeal rather than representing a geographical pride. Maybe these monuments anticipated what some historians are calling today’s “second nadir” in US race relations.
Both monuments were supported by the Iowa Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group proclaiming that “citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America.” Though the Confederate states seceded to protect chattel slavery, this group imaginatively claims, “The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.” Liberty and freedom, like the “best qualities of America,” are certainly subjective. While it may seem simply intolerable that someone should be “free” to own or severely exploit humans, the notions of freedom and American identity remain frighteningly contested even today.
The two monuments are both located in southeast Iowa, in Bloomfield and Bentonsport. Of the two, the one in Bloomfield marks the northernmost point of insurrection by the traitorous Confederacy. It handles the horrors and complexities of the four-sided Civil War with antiseptic neutrality. It honors those sacrificing to preserve the Union, it acknowledges that “Confederate Partisan Rangers Came From Missouri To This Point,” and lists the name of the Confederate leader and the number of local citizens killed. While historical preservation is important, especially when it points to potential lessons, history is rarely a neutral retelling and more often a weapon. Bentonsport’s monument is a tribute to a Confederate general born there, and whose family moved to Texas while he was still an infant. Its plaque states the man’s accomplishments.
With the tumult of today asking us to undo white supremacy and its supporting propaganda, it makes sense Confederate monuments like these are coming down in droves. Activists recently burned down one bulwark of white supremacy, the United Daughters of the Confederacy headquarters. On a thread of historians, most were nominally supportive of the arson. Interestingly, reservation expressed by an historian of the Holocaust only concerned the potential loss of primary sources, noting, “Much of what we know about the [Holocaust] victims comes from perpetrator sources.”
While stones and steel are never inherently racist or anti-racist, how they are used can necessarily support or undermine racism. We live in a social world where context matters. This is true of both Iowa’s Confederate monuments and Iowa Nice. Neither of these monuments are the real monsters, though. When we reduce ideological systems of power, like racism, to their current manifestations, like Confederate monuments, we miss the chance to address the root causes of today’s monsters. We have the chance today.
The Murderous Monster
In Iowa, a discussion of white supremacy often summons the name of the recently ousted Congressman Steve King. During his tenure, he was most widely known for advancing his overt white nationalism, through rhetoric, symbols, and policy. Unlike the mostly colorblind racism of Iowa Nice, Steve King’s overt and antagonizing advance of white supremacy eventually made him a pariah. The fact that this took seven years is a testament to Iowans’ willingness to overlook white supremacy, if doing so means also avoiding conflict or having to rethink partisan identity. Yet, if we mistake his ousting as a slaying of a monster, we miss a chance to strike at the root causes that helped support his embarrassing white nationalism for nearly a decade.
In teaching social sciences, I often do an activity on perspective. Placing a random object in the middle of a crowd of students, I ask students from varying positions in the room about what they see. Students close to the object might see the object in its entirety. Students whose vision is obscured by another’s body might not see the object at all. This exercise in metaphor becomes more apt and abstract when students are asked how their understanding of the object might be impacted by whatever preconceived notions and understanding they’re bringing. If the object, for example, is a shotgun shell, a student who has never handled firearms might be ignorant about what the object is. A student with more firearm familiarity, though, might be able to tell if the shell is spent or not. The point of this exercise, as the reader has likely guessed, is to help explain how our positions in society, and our socially constructed realities, might reveal or hide certain aspects of the world from us. In Iowa, where 90 percent of us are white, we undoubtedly have blindspots to overcome.
These blindspots and lack of racial diversity often mean a topic like white supremacy is both misunderstood and surprising to many Iowans. Such was the case when, in a relatively racially diverse graduate-level class in Ames a few years back, the professor asked students who had been pulled over for a traffic stop without a clear cause to raise the hands. The preponderance of students of color raised their hands while only one or two of the white students did. The students of color were less surprised by this unscientific poll than the white, mostly Iowan, students. While this was anecdotal, it mirrors larger data showing Iowa’s racially disparate traffic stops. Similarly, COVID-19, which in a society of equal opportunity might be expected to impact people at similar rates regardless of race, disproportionately impacts Black Iowans. Disparities like this point to a real systemic monster that lives in Iowa. Its name is white supremacy.
White supremacy: What does it mean to abolish it? What does this look like for Iowans? Foremost it means facing and understanding it. As James Baldwin reminds us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” What must we face and understand? As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes, we are a nation founded on white supremacy and colonialism, which have become engrained in both our institutions and American identity. In Iowa, and the US generally, we have never fully and publicly faced our founding sins of white supremacy and colonization.
So what does facing white supremacy or our national origin myths have to do with us today? With Iowans? Historical and social context is important. Those early settlers in Iowa territory terrorized and removed the indigenous peoples of the area. The white supremacy developed to justify this looting continues to shape Iowans’ attitudes, even amid occasional positive steps toward ending it. To understand white supremacy in Iowa, let’s step back to explore Iowa’s historical and social context.
As Iowa was being settled, it was uniquely enticing to those white settlers who wished to avoid taking a stand on the issue of racism. (This avoidance or refusal to see the issue of racism is itself supportive of white supremacy through its complicity.) Being a western territory with rich soil, Iowa promised looted land and wealth to any settler with enough means to stake a claim. And yet a variety of factors, including increasing violence in neighboring Kansas, compelled Iowa to move from being “arguably the most racist free state in the antebellum Union” to one that Ulysses S. Grant lauded as a “bright radical star” for its egalitarian approach to race relations. As today demands we overcome the complicity of Iowa Nice, we might celebrate and tap into Iowa’s radical traditions for anti-racist sentiment and action.
Though not an Iowan, abolitionist John Brown traveled through the state many times on radical, anti-slavery missions. Building on Black-led rebellions, and with support from Iowans, Brown’s actions helped spark the Civil War. Because federal law supported chattel slavery, and because some Iowans were committed to the racist law and order of the day, Iowans often had to hide their morally justifiable lawbreaking. As “ruffians” from Missouri were sent to the Kansas territory to ensure it became a slave state, John Brown and his crew traveled through Iowa to stop them. Brown’s was the moral cause of ending slavery against the profit-seeking slavers and their white slavery supporters (who wanted to hold on to the privileges granted them by their whiteness). The Iowa governor of the time, James Grimes, despite his sympathies towards John Brown’s cause, worried any official support offered Brown might disturb voters, not to mention break the law. So when John Brown asked for munitions to defend Black liberation in Kansas, it was in secret that Grimes “consented to participate in the plot to rob his own arsenal” and aid Brown. In effect, he left the key on his desk, pointed to where the munitions were locked away, and left John Brown to his own devices. Iowans aided other efforts against slavery, including being actively involved in the Underground Railroad.
The Civil War did not end white supremacy. The Reconstruction era following the Civil War made giant steps towards ending it, and brought the US toward a broader realization of its ideals of equality and democracy. The seeds for public schools, women’s suffrage, and real equality of opportunity were nurtured in this short-lived era, but ultimately white supremacy was reinstated with the Jim Crow era. It was during this era that most Confederate monuments were built and helped propagandize the “lost cause” myth.
It was during the early 1900s, firmly in that Jim Crow era, that Confederate monuments were built all over the nation. During this time the US saw a rise in nativism and, unsurprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan. Klan activity of this time was commonplace. If you were white, it was just as likely that your relatives would attend a church picnic as it was that they might attend a Klan bake sale or event. The Klan was as firmly committed to white terrorism and hatred as their reputation suggests, but their ubiquity and the wide acceptance of white supremacy and nativism meant they were relatively ordinary. It was during this time that the current president’s father, Fred Trump, was arrested in connection with the KKK’s involvement in New York’s Memorial Day parade. Whether or not Fred was a member of the Klan, it is undeniable his wealth was gained from the widespread racial apartheid that profited landlords of the time. Sociology professor Rory McVeigh, in exchanges with Vice, illustrated this commonplace nature of white supremacy:
The Klan that became very popular in the early 1920s did advocate white supremacy like the original Klan … But in that respect, [its views were] not too much different from a lot of other white Americans of that time period.
In Iowa between 1860 and 1960, state newspapers mentioned the Klan nearly 200 times. While some of these referenced regional or national activity, the Klan was active throughout Iowa. In Alta, the Klan threatened immigrants for not speaking English. In Keokuk, one could see the presidentially-endorsed propaganda film, Birth of a Nation, which glorified white supremacy. When a fraternity in Iowa City burned crosses in the yard of a sorority, the news coverage relished it, describing it as “chivalrously amusing”.
Expectedly, this period’s rise in nativism and white supremacy was not just anti-Black, but coincided with threads of xenophobia and religious intolerance. Indeed, the rising Jim Crow era saw the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act and shaped the way immigration became racialized and criminalized. Just as the Reconstruction era pushed the nation to reach its higher ideals of equality and freedom, the Jim Crow era doubled down on the loathsome but persistent attributes of the US empire. Confederate monuments are abhorrent because they represent and perpetuate larger systems and ideologies. White supremacy is a systemic and institutional issue, more than an individual one. The issue to be addressed today isn’t just individual officers who murder, or who uphold the law in an explicitly racist way, but the systemic racism that imbues our families, policing, schools, and other institutions.
The civil rights movements coalescing in the 1960s pushed back against Jim Crow’s white supremacy while connecting it to other systems of hierarchy and oppression. Iowans participated in both liberation efforts and the more mainstream efforts to carry on white supremacy. In 1966, after an era of violence inflicted by housing policies, employment practices, white midwest culture, and police, “race rebels” jumped on police cars as rebellion broke out in Des Moines. This was viewed as a threat to “law and order” even as it helped usher in an Iowa branch of the Black Panther Party, an organization that undoubtedly was instrumental in promoting civil rights. The American Indian Movement, the organization that started in Minneapolis in hopes of ending police brutality against indigenous people, also had an Iowa chapter. A Cedar Rapids courtroom oversaw the trial of AIM’s national leaders after they had been terrorized by the FBI. The support for these groups, and the movements they were part of, was multiracial, just like the crowds we see in today’s rebellion.
In addition to the interlocking evils of white supremacy, economic exploitation, and violent militarism, today we face the dangers of a post-truth society. Post-truth asks us to civilly consider all arguments and perspectives equally, like the advocate for Iowa’s Confederate monument who said, “This monument does nothing more than thank both sides for having a strong opinion. Both sides had ideas that they were willing to fight for. And we need to consider both sides on every issue.”
Courageous Iowans of the 1860s didn’t respect perspectives defending slavery. Bold Iowans of the 1960s didn’t respect Jim Crow era racism. Iowa Nice need not prevent us from being courageous today. I want to be hopeful that this rebellion can be a catalyst towards ending white supremacy, just like the widespread riots and unrest after Martin Luther King’s assassination led to concrete progressive reforms promoting racial justice. Like the anti-fascist theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote, when imprisoned by a fascist Italy, these times require us to have an “optimism of the will” even while realizing the pessimism of our current reality.
Iowans now find ourselves living in the era of the New Jim Crow, where gains made during the civil rights movements have been stripped away. It is during this era that Iowa’s Confederate monuments were built. They represent a larger, ongoing tension in the US between protection of property and equality of opportunity. Just like Iowans of the past who struggled for more equality of opportunity, we must recognize that it is our responsibility to struggle today. As journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “The expectation has to be beyond our lifetime.”
Like Michelle Alexander wrote this week, “We must reimagine justice. The days of pretending that tinkering with our criminal injustice system will ‘fix it’ are over. The system is not broken; it is functioning according to its design.” As Iowans and as human family, “Our only hope for our collective liberation is a politics of deep solidarity rooted in love.”