Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Sobel Wiki: a post-racial society

This week's featured article at the Sobel Wiki is on James Billington, the first black governor-general of the C.N.A. Sobel wrote For Want of a Nail in the summer of 1971, a time when race relations in the United States were at a low point. Every summer since the mid-1960s, there had been riots in the black ghettos of major American cities. In a way, this was actually a positive development, because it meant that African-Americans were actually fighting back against the institutionalized racism that had always been a feature of American society. At the time, though, it must have looked like the country was about to descend into an all-out racial civil war.

Ten years earlier, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had said that "There's no question that in the next thirty or forty years, a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States, certainly within that period of time." By 1971, though, it was an open question whether there would be any black people in the United States, or even whether there would be a United States, by 2001, much less a black president.

Obviously, America had taken a wrong turning somewhere, so Sobel decided to map out a more racially harmonious alternative. In the C.N.A., abolitionists take advantage of a slump in the price of slaves in the late 1830s to pass a generous compensated manumission bill (as opposed to our own history's executive order during a civil war in 1862). And Sobel never comes right out and says so, but the lack of violent opposition is almost certainly due to the presence of an escape hatch for slavery supporters: any slaveowner who doesn't want to see his slaves freed can, and presumably does, pack up and move across the Mississippi to Jefferson. (John Calhoun is the same staunch defender of slavery in the Sobel Timeline that he is in our own. Sobel never mentions Calhoun's reaction to the passage of the Lloyd Manumission Bill in 1840. He does mention a freed slave in 20th century Mexico named Miguel Calhoun, and allows the reader to draw his own conclusions.)

The next component of Sobel's racial utopia is Southern Vandalia, basically our own history's Kansas and Missouri, an area of the C.N.A. which attracts about half of the freed slaves and their children in the 1860s and 1870s, to the point where blacks make up a majority of its population. In fact, Southern Vandalia serves as a refuge for the U.S.M.'s black population as well, since Sobel explicitly says that most of the slaves born there after 1855 escaped across the border to the C.N.A.

Not that every freed slave went to Southern Vandalia to participate in this self-imposed apartheid. Sobel records that of the C.N.A.'s black population of 5.9 million in 1880, a million lived in the Northern Confederation, another 1.1 million lived in the Southern Confederation, and another 1.6 million lived in the confederations of Quebec, Indiana, Northern Vandalia, and Manitoba.

And all was not sweetness and light. When the governor of Southern Vandalia founded an organization called the Friends of Black Mexico to agitate for the abolition of slavery there, his supporters were subject to violent attacks by white racists everywhere but Manitoba. The solution to lingering white racism turned out to be a wave of emigration by blacks and whites in the 1920s, subsidized by the C.N.A.'s version of Henry Ford.

By 1938, the People's Coalition was able to win a narrow governing majority in the Grand Council by pledging to support a black candidate for Council President, an office that was a sort of combination Speaker of the House and Vice President. Twelve years later, this Council President, James Billington, succeeded to the governor-generalship himself.

Billington is much like our own history's Barack Obama, a political moderate who makes of point of drawing as little attention to his race as possible. The major contrast between Sobel's history and our own is in their opponents. Sobel records that Billington's opponents attack him for his policies rather than his race. He is defeated in the 1953 elections by Richard Mason, a more liberal candidate whose own campaign is based on an appeal to guilt rather than racism.

The election of Barack Obama, on the other hand, has been accompanied by opposition that is pretty much both racially motivated and unhinged. Conspiracy theories proliferate among Republicans, each more bizarre than the last, and all of them rooted in the belief that black people aren't real Americans. Anyone who wants to argue that Obama's election means that America is no longer racist would do well to read Chapter 34 of Nail to see what a non-racist political opposition really looks like.