It took me many years in my teaching to declare to my students that societies run on myths. At this point it seems strange that it took so long for me to come to that. But now I see it so clearly in so many places, in so many ways. David Runciman reviewed a book in the London Review of Books that caught my attention. Ira Katznelson, in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, explains the strategic partnership that FDR had with southern Democrats. Both sides had to compromise in order to work together even though in fact their agendas were different and actually contrary in some critical ways.
What struck me was how racism was such a critical basis of the agenda of leaders in the South in that relationship. The whole agenda in the South was to make sure that the federal government didn’t interfere with what the power elite in the south were doing in their own states. States rights was crucial in their federal discourse because the power elite needed to do what they wanted locally. Among themselves in the South they justified their grip on power by appealing to racial superiority. Northern agendas should never intrude on that myth.
An example: In a debate about anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938 the Senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, said that “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculties.” With this argument he protected lynching in the South from federal legislation.
In some ways not much has changed in the South, we might say, because politics in the southern states seems still to be aimed at holding at bay the pressures of outside [Northern] mores. The difference is that the Republican Party seems to be a better vehicle today for effecting that agenda than the Democratic Party.
But of course in lots of ways much has changed. Senator Bilbo made his statement – it shocks ours sensibility in these times – in 1938. But his world was already ineluctably caught in a world that would unmask the myth that seemed plausible in his time. Thirteen years later, doctors in Baltimore removed some cells from a tumor of an Afro-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who was, it turned out, dying of cancer. To their surprise the doctors discovered that the cells taken from Mrs. Lacks could be multiplied in the lab. Cell research became possible on a scale previously inconceivable. Since that time those cells have been multiplied more times than anyone knows and become the basis for more than 74,000 scientific studies. One drop of Negro blood has in this case provided the world – scholars all over the world – with basic insights into “cell biology, vaccines, and in vitro fertilization and cancer” [NYTimes 8/8/13, p. 1].
Little did the good Senator from Mississippi know. But my point is he wouldn’t care. What he sought to effect was protection of the interests of the power elite of his state [who happened of course to be white and their constituency to be white] justifying that agenda by reference to a myth about race; it paid to promote such a fantasy. The justifications now are different – the power elite and their constituency in Mississippi are different now -- but power seems to work about the same way as before. Those who have it seek ways to protect it and -- as humans need always to justify what they do – they explain the reasons for their behavior and policies in highly moral terms. The South – and the North, and all human collectives, when they try to represent their collective interests – still speaks in moral terms; and in the case of the South it is still the Bible Belt.
The difference now is what can ring true: cell research, based on blood samples of a human being is taken to be exemplary of the whole "human race"; it is no longer considered to be a sample of a particular "race" [a category that cannot be documented biologically].
But it still raises questions about what is “real.” Are all those studies based on Mrs Lacks's cells? Are they still hers? Are they "Negro"? Who do they belong to?