Sunday, February 16, 2014

Awakening the Nation

I spent the weekend in Milwaukee giving a paper at UWM's Racial Formation : Racial Blindness Conference. I have some thoughts.

It was a painful disjuncture to spend such a stimulating time among a community of scholars and activists who are exploring how to bring their scholarship to the people to affect change, only to find out yesterday evening that jurors could not agree on a murder charge in the trial of Michael Dunn.

It is painful to spend so many grueling hours researching, meditating, writing, uncovering the roots of our contemporary racial order, only to have people declare that I'm wrong and there's nothing that a little hard work and personal responsibility won't fix. In America, you see, everyone is a racial expert. I move that we extend this principle to a wider field; let's be consistent after all. I'll start tomorrow. I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to install plumbing in a house or go to a hospital and perform a knee surgery. No, I don't know anything about these things, but how hard could it be?

My tone of bitter sarcasm feels warranted in this moment, but I can't help but feel it is unchristian. If motivated by grief over the deleterious influence of Americans' ignorant pride, my current sensibility is probably warranted. But if motivated by my own professional pride and annoyance that my limited expertise is not recognized, then I am far from Jesus indeed. But this, too, is covered by his grace.
The paper I gave is titled "Awakening the Nation: John C. Stennis, Brown v. Board, and the Strategic Defense of White Supremacy." Mississippi senator John C. Stennis is a fascinating figure because in important respects he did not accept the premises of either massive resistance or southern exceptionalism. He brought to the debate over Brown three key assumptions that not only guided his actions but proved to be prophetic. The assumptions were these:

1) White Americans, of whatever region, were much the same. When the stakes became personal and concrete they would value the traditional wages of whiteness more than racial equality.
2) This essential sameness implied that White southerners could actually win in the court of public opinion, if not in the Supreme Court, if they framed their resistance in an appealing way.
3) White supremacy in the United States was sustainable if rendered increasingly localized and unofficial.

My basic argument is that Stennis was right. On all three of these assumptions, he was correct. He faced many setbacks, but in the long-term his assumptions were vindicated. The paper traces his strategies and actions in the years immediately before and after Brown, including his efforts to improve Black schools to shape public opinion and push the enforcement mechanisms of White supremacy down to the county level or lower so they would be less visible and harder to fight. His newfound opposition to federal funding for public schools also dates to these years. Once funding became linked to integration, Stennis shifted to new rhetoric about the sanctity of local control and the primacy of local school boards. I also show how his three core assumptions shaped his delicate balancing act with the Citizens Councils and his work on the Southern Manifesto.

When you look at the mid-1950s through the lens of figures like Stennis, the shift toward nationwide opposition to school desegregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s begins to look quite a bit different. Invariably framed in a narrative of "backlash," the emergence of overwhelming White opposition to efforts to promote racial equality in American education was a shock to some elite pundits. It was no surprise to John C. Stennis. It was his vindication. Framing it as a backlash erases the influence of Stennis and the forces he embodied, leaving us only with caricatures of segregationist monsters we can safely consign as relics of the Deep South with no influence on the contemporary United States.

A perusal of the present-day educational landscape puts Stennis’s success in stark relief. In his home county of Kemper, the public schools have become synonymous with Black schools, while Whites embrace private education. Though Whites constitute 35% of the population of Kemper County, they make up only 2% of public school enrollment in the county (Census Bureau; Federal Education Budget Project, New America Foundation). Nationwide, schools are now more segregated than at any time since the late 1960s, a dynamic that appears to have only grown worse since the Supreme Court ruled against local, limited, and voluntary efforts to achieve racial integration in Parents Involved in Community Schools et al. v. Seattle School District No. 1 et al (Dorsey). Three-quarters of Black and Hispanic students now attend schools in which less than half the students are White, and 15% of Black students attend schools that have essentially no White enrollment (Orfield et al). The effects, in the form of inadequate resources and concentrated poverty, are severe. These White supremacist outcomes are often seen as benign features of the landscape, standard facts of American life that are all but invisible to many Whites. Others see school segregation as a troubling but almost mysterious problem that all people of goodwill deplore. In reality, modern-day segregation is a logical outcome of the assumptions John C. Stennis brought to the fight over Brown sixty years ago.

Celebration of segregation’s demise has been incorporated into the nation’s political culture and Americans’ sense of themselves as a freedom loving people. This is made easier by emphasizing the pathetic end of vanquished demagogues. But figures like Stennis upset these simple narratives. The esteem in which he was held by his Senate colleagues, the power he accumulated, the astonishing breadth of his career—all these factors defy facile attempts to brush Stennis aside as a fringe figure of the Deep South. Just as surely as the worst excesses of massive resistance were overcome, the influence of White supremacist politics in more moderate and malleable forms lingered on.
Dana N. Thompson Dorsey, "Segregation 2.0: The New Generation of School Segregation in the 21st Century," Education and Urban Policy 45 (2013): 533-547 

Gary Orfield, John Kucsera, and Genevieve Siegel Hawley, “E Pluribus…Separation: Deepening Double Segregation for More Students,” September 2012, The Civil Rights Project, The University of California.

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