Reviews | Abortion, like prohibition, has an obvious racial dimension

Last week, David Frum wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic comparing our current battle against abortion to prohibition, another contentious issue that has bitterly divided the nation. After a long “titanic” struggle, the temperance movement succeeded in imposing a national alcohol ban – only to see it decline and collapse 13 years later.

It can happen with abortion bans, but hopefully it won’t take so long.

Frum wrote about the interconnectedness of restraining impulses – and how one can be a bridge for others. Restrictions, it seemed to imply, can be complicated. Bigotry is a close cousin of prudence.

Prohibition, in particular, had a complicated racial history. Slavers have used alcohol for years as a weapon to subdue the slaves of this country.

As Frederick Douglass explained in his memoir, “My Bondage and My Freedom”, slavers often gave slaves a week off between Christmas and New Years. During this time, they encouraged those in bondage to practice sports, dancing and drinking a lot. As Douglass wrote, “Not being drunk on vacation was shameful.”

These rejoicings were not so much to reward the slaves as to quell the “spirit of insurrection”, as Douglass put it. According to him, “the happiness of the slave is not the end sought, but rather the safety of the master”, making the slaves “as happy to return to their work as they were to leave it”.

Drunkenness was sometimes encouraged by trickery. As Douglass observed, he had known slavers who resorted to the ruse of betting on slaves to see who could drink the most whisky, a game that induced “a rivalry between them, for the mastery of this degradation”, rendering “whole multitudes” sometimes “lying in brutal intoxication, both helpless and disgusting”.

The aim was to create within the enslaved population a decidedly negative mental association with the little free time they had – and, therefore, with freedom itself.

Many who fought for the abolition of slavery later embraced the temperance movement and lobbied for prohibition, with many blacks supporting restrictions on alcohol because it had long been used for keep in slavery.

It was part of a pattern. There is a long history of oppressors using alcohol as a means of control and conquest. A Villanova professor, Mark Lawrence Schrad, author of “Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition“, describe this phenomenon in Politico last year:

Whether they encountered indigenous tribes in North America, Aborigines in Australia, Indians under the British Raj, or the entire African continent, European colonizers for decades used alcohol as a means of establishing their dominance. They would introduce industrially distilled liquors into native populations with no background or tolerance for alcohol, recoil in horror at the ensuing drunkenness, then point to that same drunkenness as proof of the innate inferiority of the natives within the community. racial hierarchy.

Later, in the United States, the media portrayed the black legislators elected during Reconstruction not only as uncivilized and corrupt, but also as drunkards.

And, as Schrad noted, “the most frequent justification given by white lynching mobs in the American South was that black men raped white women. blind drunk.”

Thus, blacks had one justification for Prohibition—freedom from white poison—but whites had another, racist one—to protect white communities from “imaginary drunken black mobs,” as Schrad put it.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Mississippi convened its 1890 constitutional convention to inscribe white supremacy into the state’s DNA, one of the other agendas was prohibition.

At the constitutional convention, delegates read a “memorial” on behalf of Mississippi prohibitionists and “Christian women” that included this passage: “There are 75 counties in Mississippi, and 40 of them are dry. These dry counties are in the white section. The 35 wet counties are mostly in the black belt and are kept wet by black voting. He continued, “A majority of white people in Mississippi favor prohibition. Why are you here if not to uphold white supremacy, especially when a majority of white people uphold a great principle of public morality and public safety? »

Today, abortion is restricted the same way alcohol was once. There are many reasons why this is happening – some of the strongest proponents of banning abortion may claim religious objections, others simply seek political advantage or cater to the baser instincts of the electorate. American, hoping to force more white women to have children in order to prevent white people from losing their majority status. The reasons for prohibition were equally numerous and complicated, a mess of interwoven moral and political allegiances. But there is an essential difference between yesterday and today: Blacks seem to have quickly increase support for abortion rights.

According to a Quinnipiac University survey published on June 22, 82% of black people support Roe v. Wade, compared to 60% of whites and 62% of Hispanics. Aggregated Gallup polls from 2001 to 2007 revealed that only 24% of black people thought abortion should be legal in all cases. This Gallup number rose to 32% for the period 2017-2020. This month’s Quinnipiac poll found that number to be 45%.

The road to prohibition, which had some black support, even if some of its white support was infected with racism, lasted decades, but prohibition itself only lasted a little more than a year. decade. These abortion bans have had an equally long run, but most Americans, including black people, don’t approve. How long before this unpopular crackdown also loses favor and falls into decline?

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