Friday, March 29, 2013

Some Subtle Revisions to the "Southern Strategy" Historiography

As I continue to learn more about the political fallout of the civil rights movement I find that the standard narrative of white racists migrating to the Republican Party needs some subtle adjustment. This corrective is needed not because the popular perception shared by the Republican faithful that theirs is and always was the party of civil rights and racial progressivism has any merit -- it doesn't -- but because casting the story in partisan terms obscures the extent to which white Americans imposed bipartisan constraints on the political possibilities for racial justice.

The sheer incompetence of the modern GOP's efforts to reach out to minorities can obscure the extent to which partisan alignments were in flux for over two decades. The obvious resentment of and indifference to minority concerns of the modern lily-white GOP base makes it easy to overlook that the Democrats made some efforts of their own to capture "The Silent Majority" who wanted their white privilege protected and affirmed.

So, as absurd as the civil rights history is that you tend to get from a Republican partisan, it actually is true that there is a double standard of a sort. How do I know this? I know because if you follow politics you are aware of Nixon's "Southern Strategy," and Reagan's 1980 paean to states rights in the county where three civil rights workers were murdered 16 years before; you know about the Willie Horton ad. But I'm fairly certain you don't know what I'm about to tell you.

Jimmy Carter came out of Georgia. How did a southern Democrat from the deep south make it onto the national stage just a few years after civil rights movement without being tainted by racism, you ask? Well, he didn't. In The South and America Since World War II, James C. Cobb notes that during the campaign Carter appeared onstage with George Wallace (George Wallace!) at a rally in Birmingham and declared, "We southerners believe in work, not welfare." When running for governor, Carter had also stood staunchly against busing to achieve integration.

During the presidential campaign he ran a TV add saying "On November 2, the South is being readmitted to the Union. If that sounds strange, maybe a southerner can understand. Only a southerner can understand what it means to be a political whipping boy. But, then, only a southerner can understand what Jimmy Carter as President can mean."

As I research the career of segregationist Democratic Senator John Stennis, I was surprised to see that as late as 1976, he said this: "Let me just say one thing about this integration. I'm against it, always have been and always will be, but it's a fact. I'm not a fool. It's a fact. It's there." Put more bluntly, he's basically saying he will always believe in white supremacy and only accepts the changes that happened over a decade ago because they're a fait accompli that he cannot roll back. I was more surprised when I found out Stennis said this while at the Biloxi, Mississippi airport to meet Jimmy Carter for a campaign event! Carter said it was "a great honor" to campaign with a "statesman...committed to absolute integrity" like Stennis.

All of these things, the campaign events with segregationists, the racial dog whistles about welfare, would be well-known parts of the Republican Southern Strategy narrative, this case Republicans didn't do them! There is the double standard. Nonetheless, it's not much to get worked up about, for at least two reasons. First, Carter governed differently from how he campaigned. Reagan, by contrast, backed up racial campaign appeals with real policy: savage spending cuts to urban areas, defense of segregated private schools, and only grudgingly renewing the Voting Rights Act under pressure. Second, we know the end of the story. In a sense, relative to the culture in which it resides, the Republican Party in 2013 is more hostile to minorities than it has ever been. At least back in the 1970s there were still factions of the party opposed to becoming an essentially white movement.

But this is no cause for Democratic gloating. Indeed, the rightward turn of the Republican Party can easily blind us to the extent of bipartisan opposition to creating an equal opportunity society. For example, during the height of the busing controversies in the early 1970s, a poll showed 98% of whites opposed to it. You don't like busing? Ok, well what do you suggest? I don't see you recommending that your nice suburban neighborhood with spacious lawns change its zoning laws so some low-income housing can be built.

If you oppose difficult efforts like busing on the one hand, and actual policies that would integrate neighborhoods on the other, you leave no plausible way to integrate schools. In effect you support Plessy v Ferguson. A favorite tactic is to couch opposition to opportunity-creating policies in terms of class and crime instead of race. You can go ahead and do that, but it's not as if it is any less sinful to withhold good from your neighbor because he is poor than because he is black or brown (why yes, that was a deliberate echo of Proverbs 3:27). There is a bipartisan consensus around the idea that the creation and maintenance of these middle-to-high income suburban enclaves has nothing to do with the deprivation of opportunity just a few miles away in a city center. In reality they're opposite sides of the same coin, minted together.

The possession of privilege is not a mark against anyone. It can come to us unbidden. But the attempt to erect barriers of exclusion around that privilege is at once the fundamental feature of American politics and the essence of an unchristian life.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Soul Searching

This is more of a curiosity item than a follow-up to my last post, but it is nonetheless enlightening, I think. In Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything, he quotes the reactions of some southern white Christians to the civil rights upheavals. The first one I'll share is bad, the second is good, but I can see myself in both writers.

A Methodist layperson said, 
Being a Christian is accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior…and just because I don’t want my granddaughter to go to school with a Negro boy, I don’t see what it has got to do with my being a Christian or not.
Meanwhile, a Georgian woman named Harriet Southwell had been a long-time supporter of Senator Richard Russell, the leader of the segregationists in the Senate. But in 1963 she wrote to him and said this:
I truly believe the time is here--(it is late) and that we as Christians--and as true citizens need to acknowledge our wrong and face up to and admit that we have not done to and for  the Negro what we, had our faces been black, would have wanted to be done for us…I have seen in these years of soul-searching many men and women who with great effort and almost heartbreak have changed their views from those of the days when the Negro was slave and servant. Understand that it took soul-rending change for some of these—some who had been bitter and resentful but who were fair minded and who examined their souls and had to change. 
The majority of white southern Christians were unwilling to make this simple calculus. As plain as it was, it could indeed be soul-rending to try to be a Christian first and a white southerner second. The challenge for us is to think about what we believe "has got nothing to do with being a Christian" when in fact we just don't really want to be Christians. It would be foolish to assume we will look better to history than these folks did.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Seeing Against Our Self-Interest

As I noted here Saturday, the existence of retrospectively obvious injustice does not mean it is discernible to people at the time, even to those who participated in it. That's how you get white people in the deep south in the 1960s expressing genuine puzzlement about why blacks would be protesting. After all, they said, blacks had it better than whites did. Many people were that blind to what was actually occurring. It was in their interest to be blind.

It is important for us to face the fact that it is in our interest as well, yours and mine, to be blind. One of the great stumbling blocks for readers is the sense that, if ongoing inequality and discrimination were as bad as what this blog describes, you would know about it. If reality was as I describe and as the statistics show, you would be hearing about it from more sources and would be seeing it with your own eyes.

But why must that be so? I raise the opinions of white southerners in the 1960s not to claim a false symmetry between then and now, but only to show that it is possible to believe people are getting a fair shake even in a society whose entire structure is designed to ensure that is precisely what does not happen. It is all the more understandable that we believe it now, after so many improvements have been made.

Polling shows that the majority of whites believe that the remaining work to be done primarily involves minorities fixing their cultures and getting to work.  Whites who cling to this view do not have much in the way of statistics or social science research to back them up. They just have, like southern whites in the 1960s, a strong sense that it ought to be so.

Think of it this way. Let's say you are, like most of my readers, white and middle class, and were probably born into a family that fit the same profile. What do you possibly have to gain by admitting that you're privileged? From a typical American perspective you really don't have anything to gain, and may have much to lose. That is one the reasons the realities of an unequal and unjust society often make so little impression on us. If we let reality intrude, we find that responsibility is not far behind.

For Christians this is all the more true. From the proverbs of the Old Testament to the letters of Paul, the Bible consistently calls us to recognize our privilege and treat all we have as a gift to be poured out for others who have been less fortunate. This is the ethic we are called to live by across spiritual, social, and material dimensions. The common sense American attitude that we have worked for what we have and are entitled to it is considered sinful in Christian thought. Yet we frequently function as Americans first and Christians second.

I know enough of the culture of evangelicalism to understand that the preceding paragraph might be confusing to some readers, because many pastors do not preach in ways that challenge their parishioners' most deeply held Americanized beliefs. We're not accustomed to thinking in this way. But I challenge you to read the Bible for yourself. You'll find that the ideas above are basic Christian theology.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: There Goes My Everything

Jason Sokol. There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975. New York: Knopf, 2006.

The civil rights movement is more than just the story of the black freedom struggle. It is also the story of how southern whites variously resisted, accommodated, or embraced the world that was shifting under their feet. As Jason Sokol argues, while blacks drove change during the era, ordinary whites in thousands of locales and in a multitude of varied responses played a crucial role in determining the extent of that change. Yet until recent years little scholarship was focused on white reaction. Moreover, much of what was written focused on white elites and extremists, the Ross Barnett’s and Bull Connor’s of the South. In these accounts the quiet struggle of millions of ordinary white southerners to come to terms with the changes sweeping their life are often lost from view. Sokol aims to recover their voices and gain insight into what the civil rights movement was like for average white southerners.

Using letters to newspapers and letters constituents sent to their representatives, Sokol shows that the set-piece events that define traditional civil rights narratives – Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma – were not necessarily representative of ordinary white southerners’ experience. Rather, for many white southerners the civil rights movement was an intensely localized and personal experience. Bloody Sunday might have been a distant and impersonal event filtered through media, while the first time addressing a black man as “Mr.” could linger in memory as a major shift. Likewise, white southerners who gave little thought to legislation passed in far-off Washington D.C. could not forget the year the first blacks were elected to the local school board. Though the movement is generally seen as reaching a peak in 1964 and 1965, for many white southerners it was was defined by when it arrived in their town.

For some southern whites the most wrenching changes happened deep into the 1970s, long after the cameras had gone away and the history of the movement was already being written. Historians would try to fit the responses of white political leaders into various categories of resistance or moderation, but most white southerners were not radical in either direction. They were happy with southern customs and they wanted life to get back to normal. After learning about the civil rights movement a little boy asked one white southerner, “Which were you in – the Klan or the FBI?” The man replied, “I was just in Georgia” (13). For these southerners, the movement was an unwelcome and confusing intrusion, but it was not something to violently resist, much less join. Sokol shows that many white southerners disliked violence and upheaval far more than they sympathized with black goals. Acquiescing to the changes the civil rights movement had wrought was sometimes the quickest way to restore stability and move on in the hope that life could continue as before.

There Goes My Everything is an equivocal book. At a glance this may seem to be a weakness, but it is the necessary result of Sokol’s main argument. The responses of ordinary white southerners were localized, varied, and defiant of simple generalizations. It is an equivocal book because the legacy of the civil rights movement is itself ambiguous, and the voices of ordinary white southerners are so difficult to recover. Many whites, having deeply drunk of a paternalistic ethos, were shocked that “our good Negroes” were participating in the movement at all. Smaller numbers rapidly embraced the changes or else bitterly resisted long after the movement was over. Collectively, their responses helped to determine the boundaries of the second reconstruction.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

What if Everything You Know to be True Turns Out to be False?

I'm rereading Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 for some deep background on the kinds of attitudes average whites possessed during the period. He has a long chapter called "Our Negroes No More" that brilliantly conveys a couple of key points.

First, southern white paternalism is well known, as is the widespread red-baiting whites used to combat the civil rights movement. But the deep connection between them was not clear to me until today. Let's define the terms. Paternalism is evoked by the chapter title: white southerners regularly spoke of "our" Negroes and professed to know and understand them better than anyone else, to have their best interests at heart, and to be responsible for their gradual uplift. Red-baiting was the widespread practice of tarring any civil rights protest in a given community as the work of communist outsiders who swept into town and stirred up local blacks.

When reading outlandish claims about a communist infiltration, it is easy to assume that this rhetoric was opportunistic. It was a useful tool in the hands of southern whites in the Cold War environment, nothing more. But that ignores the connection to paternalism. When confronted with how deeply whites believed in their sense of possession over "our good Negroes," it becomes clear that red-baiting was not only useful, but for many whites psychologically necessary.

Faced with local blacks engaging in protest, whites could give up the beliefs of a lifetime and admit that they didn't know blacks so well after all, or they could choose to believe that blacks were being misled by outsiders and all would return to normal once the professional agitators left. It was much easier to believe the latter. To put it another way, whites turned to anti-communist rhetoric not only as a strategic tool in the battle against civil rights -- which is how it is usually studied -- but for their own peace of mind.

In Albany, Georgia, for example, during the height of the protests a white woman wrote the Albany Herald to express her belief that "We have lots of good Negroes here, but until the City can throw those agitators out and get Albany back to normal, I guess the other Negroes will be scared half to death." The sight of "good Negroes" protesting was not to be taken at face value. They must have been pushed into it out of fear of the "agitators."

The second point that comes through is that segregation relied not only on a lot of people who thought it right that whites should rule, but a significant number of whites who denied anything of the kind was occurring. Whites had so imbibed the stories they told themselves about black contentment and the extraordinary goodness with which whites had treated them that many whites were baffled when civil rights protests broke out in their town.

R.J. Williams asked incredulously, "What do the Negroes want? Their schools are newer and better than the whites." Likewise, Faye Burnham queried, "Why do they want integration? They have everything that the white people have." These statements were so far from the truth that it is tempting to posit some sort of mental illness or singular depravity, but that doesn't suffice because they reflected such widespread sentiments.

It speaks to the level of self-deception required to perpetrate injustice in a culture influenced by Christianity. Many white southerners possessed a variety of commitments pertaining to their Christian faith and sense of what America meant, commitments that made it a near psychological necessity to create a false reality about what whites were doing to blacks.

There are implications in this for the present day. We'll get to that later.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

David Barton is Cool with Genocide

I raise this only because I know Barton continues to have some standing among evangelicals and I personally know of decent people who continue to labor under the impression that Barton shares their sense of decency. Let it be known, my friend, that he does not. I have to say, though, that even I was surprised by this. On his little radio spot today he was discussing just war theory. It turns out that he thinks genocide can sometimes fall under the rubric of just war, especially if it is white Americans doing it to Native Americans. Listen to it here. His meaning seems a little less clear in the transcript than it does in the audio, but either way it is fairly horrific. Here he is on some of the components of just war:
You have to deal, a lot of it, with how the enemy responds. It's got to be based on what the enemy responds [to,] you cannot reason with certain types of terrorists; and see that's why we could not get the Indians to the table to negotiate with us on treaties until after we had  thoroughly whipped so many tribes ... What happened was the Indian leaders said "they're trying to change our culture" and so they declared war on all the white guys and went after the white guys and that was King Philip's War.  It was really trying to be civilized on one side and end torture and the Indians were threatened by the ending of torture and so we had to go in and we had to destroy Indian tribes all over until they said "oh, got the point, you're doing to us what we're doing to them, okay, we'll sign a treaty."
I don't claim to know anything about King Philip's War, but his fundamental claim, that European settlers were responding in kind to Native American violence, is false. In fact, European warfare was much more deadly than Native American warfare. It's funny that he would mention King Philip's War rather than the Pequot War 40 years before that made it clear white settlers were in New England to stay. The funny thing about that war was that the Pequots and other tribes were accustomed to a culture of warfare that involved small-scale raiding, captive-taking, and small numbers of deaths. The English, the ones Barton calls "civilized," responded by indiscriminately massacring many hundreds of men, women, and children. Their Native American allies were shocked by what was, in their view, the barbarous behavior of the Europeans.

Anyway, it was not my intention to engage with the merits of Barton's argument. I trust that its out-of-bounds nature is close to self-evident. He went on to discuss, in favorable terms, American treatment of the plains Indians. Barton is a famously dishonest and slippery character, but at a certain point you can't continue to wriggle your way out of these self-created binds. It's like, "Hey, I'm not a horrible person! I just say horrible stuff on the radio for a living!" It begins to wear thin after a while.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How Whites Pretended to be Opposed to Busing

One of the things I really appreciate about Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty is that he deftly shows how the civil rights movement was defeated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after most whites had already transitioned to public rhetoric and belief claims that espoused equality and opportunity. The great problem was that what white people said in newspaper columns and told pollsters was quite different from what they actually did. In practice, they remained opposed to anything beyond token integration.

Nowhere was this more clear than in the battles over school desegregation that became nationalized in the early 1970s. The attempt to bus students to achieve more diversity in schools met implacable white opposition across the country. The important thing to realize is that whites won. From the height of desegregation efforts in the early 1970s there has been a slow retreat as federal courts have become increasingly reluctant to mandate changes that would force school districts to align with the clear reasoning of Brown v Board: segregated education is inherently unequal education. As such, by most measures our schools are now more segregated than they were forty years ago.

It is important to understand that racial conflict has declined not because we have done away with segregated and unequal schooling, but because as a society we have agreed to accept it. In the early 1970s whites fought to maintain superior schooling for themselves at the expense of minorities. They won. If the federal government actually made a frontal assault on segregated education now, you would rather suddenly see how little progress we've made, because white people would be up in arms once again.

Further, it is not commonly understood that the opposition to busing on the part of whites was opportunistic rather than principled. Sugrue does a good job of bringing this out. Opposition to busing was expressed in colorblind language and appeals to neighborhood schools and the nostalgic image of children walking a couple blocks to their nearby school. But as Julian Bond succinctly summarized what whites really had a problem with, "It's not the bus, it's us." Sugrue points out that by 1970 half of American school children rode the bus to school, over 96% for reasons having nothing to do with integration.

Some of my thesis research so far bears this out as well. The image the anti-busing folks then and now present is of a child forced to take an absurdly long bus ride to a completely different neighborhood on the other side of the city. It might be uncomfortable, dangerous, and it's all to satisfy the social engineering demands of some bureaucrats in a far off place. But as the New York Times reported on May 24, 1970, busing for racial purposes was extremely widespread before integration efforts, and it provoked no response.
In the South, busing children away from the home neighborhood to maintain segregation was customary before integration orders began to follow in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling against school segregation in 1954...
Southern educators felt busing was so essential that numerous counties in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia transported almost all their pupils, white buses taking white children to white schools and Negro buses meeting them on the streets while taking black pupils to Negro schools.
About 90 percent of 300 desegregation plans approved by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for southern school districts last year decreased total busing [emphasis added].
In the North it was more complex because residential segregation was worse, but nonetheless these sorts of inconvenient facts expose the lies white people tell themselves. I'm quite sure that even in those districts where kids had shorter bus rides as a result of integration orders many white parents managed to tell themselves they were longer. It is human nature that people will tell themselves whatever they have to in order to preserve their privileges with as little cognitive dissonance as possible.

This is emblematic of the unequal political playing field efforts for equality continue to face. A government policy, if it supports the status quo of white privilege, is seen as just the natural way things are. It's not even viewed as a government policy. But as soon as that same policy is turned to try to advance equal opportunity instead of white supremacy, whites suddenly notice it and pretend that a heavy handed government is engaging in social engineering.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Review: Beyond Blackface

W. Fitzhugh Brundage, editor. Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

The era around the turn of the twentieth century is often considered the nadir of American race relations, as black Americans faced extraordinary violence and discrimination. But the authors in this collection of essays focus more on what African Americans were doing than what was being done to them. Collectively, they argue that African Americans did not merely possess a distinct black culture but were integral in the creation of a modern American mass culture. Through entertainment, sports, and the use of new technologies, African Americans asserted themselves and refused to passively occupy the marginalized space white Americans had assigned for them.

The use of new technologies to caricature and dehumanize African Americans is well known, but if images and film could be used against blacks, they could also be employed to force white Americans to confront real images of African Americans as dignified and human. As John Stauffer notes, as early as the 1850s Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists had great faith in the power of photography to advance black perspectives, and in the twentieth century, black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux built a decades-long career. He faced chronic shortages of capital and equipment, and battled white-controlled censorship boards to make dozens of movies that challenged white assumptions. Thus an increasingly visual popular culture could cut both ways as African Americans appropriated technologies that were frequently tools of oppression and used them to define themselves as they saw fit.

In other areas such as music and sports, African Americans exerted more influence than white Americans often wanted to admit. The most popular music at the turn of the century was ragtime, a form begun by African Americans and quickly adopted by whites. Likewise, as David Krasner points out in his essay, African American performers and dancers such as Aida Walker achieved widespread acclaim and capitalized on white assumptions to present themselves as “the essence of cool." In the boxing ring, Jack Johnson knocked out “The Great White Hope,” shaking white supremacy and causing whites across the country to riot in a panicked attempt to assert control. Meanwhile, the Great Migration shaped the contours of mass culture as white fears of black mobility affected the placement of everything from housing to entertainment venues and vice districts.

A few of the essays in Beyond Blackface appear to be works in progress that would benefit from a more fulsome treatment. The disparate collection of authors at times produces tensions and overlap, yet on the whole Brundage has ably collected a set of essays organized around cohesive themes. These themes are nicely encapsulated by one of the final essays detailing Joe Louis’s defeat of the Nazis’ standard bearer in 1938, a fight that made him a hero to millions of Americans, white as well as black. That Louis achieved such visibility without provoking white riots owed partly to the international context and his clean cut image. But it also pointed to African Americans’ success in contributing to and defining the American story. In the ensuing decades it would become increasingly difficult for white Americans to define African Americans as aliens and strangers in their own land.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Thoughts for Sunday

One of the abiding themes of these past few years is that I've learned a lot more than I've become.

This causes lots of problems. I suppose it used to be easy for me to look down on people who were not like me. More than that, I guess they were invisible to me. Now I "know" not to do that anymore. So am I less self-righteous? No, now I look down on people who look down on people. Or to put it another way, I look down on people who remind me of me. My arrogance is not lessened; it is only displaced.

There is something particularly nasty about that.
Jesus told a story to some people who were sure they were right with God. They looked down on everybody else. He said to them, “Two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. The other was a tax collector.

“The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people,’ he said. ‘I am not like robbers or those who do other evil things. I am not like those who commit adultery. I am not even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. And I give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood not very far away. He would not even look up to heaven. He beat his chest and said, ‘God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.’

“I tell you, the tax collector went home accepted by God. But not the Pharisee. Everyone who lifts himself up will be brought down. And anyone who is brought down will be lifted up.”
There are several ways of responding to this. You can realize you're too much like the Pharisee and humble yourself. You can identify with the tax collector. Or you can do it like I do, say "God, I thank you that I am not like that Pharisee" and miss the point entirely.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Purposes of Forgetting

Quick! Name a segregationist from the civil rights era.

Anybody come to mind?

Don't feel bad if you couldn't think of one. This is a social critique, not an individual criticism. Now, let's say you did name one. Was it Bull Connor? George Wallace? Strom Thurmond? Ross Barnett? I imagine those names pretty much cover it, if you came up with a name.

Now here's the dirty little secret. None of those guys, with the possible exception of Wallace, were particularly good at defending segregation. Most of them proved to be useful foils, and had they never existed the battle for white supremacy would have played out in much the same way. But to the extent we remember any segregationists, we like to remember those who were incompetent, or buffoonish, or violent, or some combination of the three. Why is that?

As I hinted at in my review of Sweet Land of Liberty, our remembrance and forgetfulness of the civil rights movement carries a purpose of its own. That purpose is to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come. Are our schools as segregated as they were 40 years ago? "Doesn't matter; tell us about Birmingham again." Are isolated enclaves of poverty just as cut off from hope and opportunity as they were? "It's okay, remind us of Selma." Has the wealth gap grown larger? "Don't worry, just tell us again about dogs and fire hoses and freedom riders and the man standing in the schoolhouse door. Then we'll know how far we've come."

We remember the dumb segregationists because we want to believe they were the problem. We don't want to know that defeating them, by itself, solved almost nothing. We don't remember the white racists who were actually good at defending their interests. Men like Richard Russell in the senate, Mayor Daley in Chicago or, for that matter, our presidents. More than that, we don't want to know that the problem went beyond the capacity of individual heart change to fix.

By the middle of the twentieth century, injustice based on race was built into the fabric of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our government. Built. Pretending that it could be uprooted by a change of heart and newfound intention to be nice is like assuming a skyscraper will disappear because we regret building it.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that a majority of white Americans have ever actually cared about doing the work of unbuilding what they had built. We made it through the entire civil rights era without this basic selfishness being challenged. That is why we remember the beatings on the bridge at Selma, and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, and it's why those events galvanized public opinion at the time. The majority of white Americans did not care, and by all appearances still do not, about the quiet, fundamentally unequal share of opportunity that slowly strangled black Americans and silently killed them by the thousands.

A dramatic beating, a bomb. Why, there is something to get upset about! On the other hand, the fact that because of your skin color you have less housing options, poorer education, less fairness from police, less money, less life expectancy, less, less, less -- well, that's just the way things are and haven't you heard it has nothing to do with race?

Because of the indifference of whites, civil rights activists were forced to build their movement on showcase events -- the beatings and mass jailings. But that was a thin reed to build a just society on. It's why the movement faltered every time it encountered smart white authorities who avoided public outrages while quietly protecting the life-killing privileges their white constituents demanded.

I've come to realize that we're still doing the same thing. We're trying to get the majority of white Americans to care, and instead of unapologetically informing them about the basic justice of the cause and seeking to sensitize their social conscience, we are still going out on those thin reeds, seeking a showcase to dramatize an unequal America.

That was what Trayvon Martin was all about. I admit now that I was misguided on that, not because of the case itself but because of what I wanted to use it for. If people are not already outraged and morally stricken by the daily life experience of many of America's poor, a killing in murky circumstances is certainly not going to move them.

Book Review: Sweet Land of Liberty

Thomas Sugrue. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North. New York: Random House, 2008.

For many Americans the civil rights movement remains a southern-rooted morality play providing reassuring testament to how far the nation has come. Thomas Sugrue argues that including the North in the story of the black freedom struggle upends this soothing narrative and fundamentally reshapes our understanding of both the movement and America’s present progress toward racial equality. Traditional histories that focus on the South in the 1950s and 1960s are, Sugrue says, “as much the product of forgetting as remembering." This is forgetfulness with a purpose, as simplistic tales of past victories produce complacency in the present. By broadening the geographic and temporal scope of civil rights history, Sugrue challenges this forgetfulness.

Sugrue employs a blend of topical and chronological approaches to show the importance of the North in the black freedom struggle. He begins his narrative in the 1920s and 1930s with chapters on topics ranging from the fight to desegregate public accommodations in the North to school integration, open housing, and fair employment efforts. Sugrue reveals a northern landscape of broad-based activism, much of it led by grassroots groups operating under the radar of the white press. It becomes clear that the North was anything but a sideshow. Indeed, while the South still appeared relatively tranquil the movement was already well underway in the North. Like other recent civil rights scholars such as Glenda Gilmore, Sugrue explores the radical roots of much of this protest. Activists achieved significant – if frequently symbolic – gains, as many northern states passed laws banning de jure segregation in the 1930s and 1940s.

Sugrue sees 1963 as a turning point. In that year alone, the justice department tallied 1,412 civil rights protests, the result of an unprecedented surge of activism driven by an increasingly militant and impatient grassroots. Yet Sugrue’s book differs in important respects from classic texts such as Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy. In Sugrue’s hands, the splintering of the civil rights movement and the rise of black power in the latter part of the 1960s is not a false turn or unprecedented change. Rather, it appears as an organic development that is markedly familiar, rising out of the wide-ranging radicalism of the interwar years. Here Sugrue’s difficult blending of topical and chronological approaches works well as he comes around to the same topics covered earlier – housing, schools, work – but explores the struggle over them in the different context of the 1960s and 1970s as everyone from radical nationalists to moderate integrationists drew on decades-old currents of protest.

Sweet Land of Liberty is as comprehensive an account of the civil rights struggle in the North as we are likely to have for quite some time. Sugrue deftly covers subjects as diverse as the violent uprisings of the urban North to issues of gender and the politics of welfare. Crucially, Sugrue carries his narrative through the 1990s. Though this final section of the book is less developed, it bolsters Sugrue’s thesis that examining the northern civil rights struggle forces a reappraisal of the movement and America’s present condition. He points out that in education, housing, employment, and wealth inequality, the conditions that produced the black freedom struggle remain astonishingly similar. Seen from the North and in the broad sweep of the twentieth century, it becomes clear that the civil rights movement ended not merely because it achieved its goals, but because it was defeated.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Good People, Racist Country

TNC's guest editorial in the New York Times yesterday covered well-trod ideas but it is worth revisiting them. Riffing off a recent indignity the black actor Forest Whitaker suffered at a deli in TNC's neighborhood, he challenges us to think about "The good, racist people."
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” 
A half-century later little had changed. The comedian Michael Richards (Kramer on “Seinfeld”) once yelled at a black heckler from the stage: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Confronted about this, Richards apologized and then said, “I’m not a racist,” and called the claim “insane.” 
The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.  
But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner. The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. Forest Whitaker fits that bill, and he was addressed as such.
Coates is challenging here not only the notion that good people cannot be racists, but the very meaning of American society. It reminds me of the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal who came to the United States at the behest of the Carnegie Corporation to study the "Negro problem." (Around the same time, the black author Richard Wright was asked what could be done about the "Negro problem." He informed the interviewer that there was no Negro problem, only a white racism problem. Seventy years later, many whites still don't get that, even if we don't call it the Negro problem anymore). The result of Myrdal's study was the classic and extremely influential book, An American Dilemma, published in 1944.

The point is, though Myrdal was anti-racist in his orientation, he accepted many common frames of the time and was extravagant in his praise of American ideals. He argued that all Americans shared a belief in an American Creed defined by freedom, equality, justice and opportunity, and that any deviations from this creed were tragic exceptions rather than contested expressions of American identity. When you actually look at the history of the United States, this optimistic take becomes extremely dubious. And that's part of what Coates is getting at: racism lives in "the heart of a democratic society," but Myrdal wanted to believe, and we do as well, that it merely lives in "the heart of particularly evil individuals."

The line that we trace from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation to the civil rights movement is useful, and was used by people at those times to advance justice, but it is only one expression of contested American identities. The line from Jefferson and Madison to Calhoun and colonization and Plessy and modern colorblind conservatism is just as true an expression of America's real identity, and it's one in which black people are excluded.

TNC followed up his column with a brilliant summary of the stakes involved:
If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.  
That is hard to take. If Forrest Whitaker sticks out in that deli for reasons of individual mortal sin, we can castigate the guy who frisked him and move on. But if he -- and others like him -- stick out for reasons of policy, for decisions that we, as a state, have made, then we have a problem. Then we have to do something beyond being nice to each other.
This is the crux of my grief. Basically, if you don't think the United States is a racist country in some fundamental way -- or if you think that to the extent racism lingers your job is to be nice to people -- then in my view you don't actually care about racism.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Book Review: Slow Fade to Black

Thomas Cripps. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

The American film industry offered little relief for African Americans amid an oppressive society in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet Thomas Cripps argues that African Americans subtly swayed American film during this period and gradually gained influence despite their marginalization. He traces the work of African Americans from the earliest moving pictures to the 1942 agreement between studio heads and the NAACP in which the major studios promised to enhance the roles of African Americans and diminish the use of old stereotypes. Though much more remained to be done, Cripps contends that this achievement was the culmination of a period in which a casually racist Hollywood was increasingly unable to ignore the demands of black audiences and black performers.

Cripps begins his narrative in the earliest days of filmmaking, a time that was more favorable for African Americans than subsequent decades. In their primitive state without editing technology, early films sometimes allowed the humanity of black Americans to come through, perhaps in spite of directorial intentions. As filmmaking became more sophisticated, white-owned studios asserted more control, consigning blacks to stereotyped roles informed by the southern literary tradition. By 1915 D.W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation decisively asserted the worst racist tropes of white Americans and, partly for that reason, became enormously popular. Black Americans picketed the film and in several cities succeeded in getting some of the worst scenes censored, but these were tactical victories in a strategic rout.

The Birth of a Nation epitomized the tensions African Americans faced as they sought to influence American films. Should blacks accommodate the racist film industry, protecting the meager roles they had in the hope of gradual improvement, or should they build their own film industry? There was no easy answer. Disunity and lack of capital meant that African American films made by and starring black performers remained largely marginalized and inferior products. Yet by the depression years, old-style racism was increasingly hard for the white studios to sell. Black Americans boycotted films and the black press angrily denounced retrograde propaganda, while many white liberals also began to share their concerns. The studios began to make films that dropped the hard-edged racism of earlier fare.

Cripps provides an exhaustive and at times exhausting overview of African Americans in film. The narrative frequently devolves into a series of plot summaries and a catalogue of often demeaning roles at the margins of white movies. Yet Cripps sees his book as a hopeful portrayal of black progress in the face of significant odds. 1939’s blockbuster Gone with the Wind epitomized the gains African Americans had made since The Birth of a Nation. Yet it also revealed the limitations of progress. Though Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her role as a “mammy” figure, the film embraced the Lost Cause ethos, trivialized slavery, and portrayed white southerners as victims. Cripps is remarkably sanguine about these problems, contenting himself with the film’s sympathetic portrayal of McDaniel’s character.

It is here that the book's publication date most clearly comes into view. Racism was certainly frowned upon in 1977, but it seems that the overall white southern perspective on the civil war era was not as thoroughly discredited, as a factual matter, as it is now. So though the author is anti-racist in his orientation, he seems relatively unconcerned about what appears to us as racist historical propaganda. Nevertheless, Cripps is right in noting that as a more equal black presence on screen fitfully emerged in subsequent decades, it owed a debt to this earlier generation of actors and activists for whom the barest humanization in film represented a step forward.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

More Details On Scalia's Racism

I think a lot of liberals misunderstood the comments Scalia made Wednesday. There is a perception that Scalia called securing the right of an individual to vote a "racial entitlement." I'm confident that is not what he was saying, and that's why I didn't address it in my post. But it turns out what he was saying was just as offensive. I think it's worth some more clarification.

Rather than referring to the rights of individuals to vote, Scalia was discussing the collective distribution of political power across the United States. He demonstrated this with his bizarre argument that the four renewals of the Voting Rights Act with successively less opposition each time reveal a troubling institutionalization of "racial entitlement." As the Act has become less needed, he argues, it has become more sacrosanct, and politicians dare not vote against it. This is the basis for the "racial entitlement" he worries about.

Scalia then explicitly stated the nature of this entitlement: "There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now." He goes on to say that because politicians won't vote against something that sounds as wonderful as "The Voting Rights Act," the Supreme Court must act for them and strike down this unfair racial entitlement. It's clear he is talking about the collective distribution of racial power. In his mind this law produces an unfair amount of representation for minorities.

Scalia does not mention the corollary of the fact that there are "black districts by law just about now." There are many more districts that are overwhelmingly white and thus are "white" districts in much the same way the other districts are "black." In fact, as Dylan Matthews details, there are legitimate questions to be asked about how the Voting Rights Act is applied and whether it is enhancing minority power as much as it could. In some southern states, for example, Republicans have redistricted all white Democrats out of office and the congressional delegation is dominated by conservative white Republicans and a few black Democrats from minority-majority districts. Does this really give meaningful representation?

If Scalia had made that argument no one would have a problem with what he said. Perhaps, for example, 10 districts with 30% minority population would provide better representation than 5 districts with 60%. We should be thinking of ways to make our system more democratic. But Scalia was arguing the opposite point, that despite minorities' under-representation in elective office, we need to get rid of this "racial entitlement." That is every bit as offensive and racist as it would have been if he had argued, as some liberals seem to think he did, that the individual right to vote is a racial entitlement.

Again, the key context for this is that minorities have much less power, many fewer elective offices, than their share of the population. Whites (especially rural conservative whites because of the way our senate and electoral college is structured) possess power disproportionate to their numbers.  That is the primary racial entitlement that exists in our system. Thus Scalia's view is utterly incoherent unless it starts with the racist assumption that it is right for whites to have disproportionate power.