continuity and change in american racism

On a late spring afternoon, my mom was standing in line at the Big Star getting groceries before heading home to make dinner for her husband and tend to her baby. In the checkout line, a voice came over the loudspeakers and announced that MLK Jr had just been shot and killed downtown. The checkout boy smiled and said “They finally got the son of a bitch.”

That was April 4, 1968, in Memphis. I was the baby. To just about any of you reading this–including my mom–this will seem like a long time ago. Two likely reactions to this vignette, in light of when it happened, are: 1) That was a long time ago and things have changed a lot since then, and all this yelling about racism is seriously overblown; and 2) That was a long time ago and apparently nothing has changed, despite the civil rights movement and all the laws and trying to re-educate people and all that. So we’re screwed.

Both reactions would be understandable, and fortunately, they are both wrong.

As a historian, it’s my job to pursue abiding questions in human history whose examination takes place over the long term, regardless of current events. But it is also my job as a historian to offer whatever insights I think history might have to offer as we grapple with pressing problems that may seem of the moment, but are actually deeply-rooted in our history.

The fact is that things HAVE changed a lot since I was born. As humans, it is natural enough that we would prefer to focus on that, because it feels good. But there is another fact, on which we would rather not focus, because it makes us frustrated, angry, and depressed. That fact is, of course, that things haven’t changed as much as they needed to, or that we’d like to believe they have.

It is true that changing deeply-embedded social attitudes takes time, and that fifty-odd years is not that much time in societal terms. But we mustn’t use an acknowledgement of that reality as a cover or excuse for the fact that this society has been largely stalled on that front for much of that period. Until we acknowledge that, and understand it, we have what seems like a valid reason to do nothing and just wait for “time” to take care of it. It won’t. It will just get worse.

That’s because racism is still well-ensconced in the bedrock of American social consciousness. That’s obvious right now, in that the most vocal, overt racists have been emboldened by the politicians they helped put in office to act out in ways no one my age or younger has ever seen. (My parents, on the other hand, saw plenty of it–and much worse.) While of course it causes most of us great dismay, it’s encouraging in a way that this is happening, because it forces the rest of us to pay attention to the fact that something we would like to think has gone away is still very much with us. On the other hand, it would be easy to comfort ourselves by assuming that these are the ONLY racists, and that if we can just isolate and neutralize them, we can isolate and neutralize racism–and, after all, they are a desperate fringe on the political ropes, right?

If only. But racism in this country–and elsewhere in the world–is much bigger and deeper than that. We can root it out, but only if we acknowledge its existence, call it for what it is, and then start doing something about it. We haven’t done that yet. That’s why things haven’t gotten any better than they have. I hope some of you find that encouraging–especially those of you much younger than I. You can do this–if you want to. The problem is, this country has never really wanted to. And that’s largely because racism, as I said, is much bigger and deeper than the shouters and the shooters. The history will help explain that.

A big question students of U.S. history ask is, Why doesn’t the U.S. seem to have a class system, the way our mother country and other Old World societies do? There are two answers to that. The first is, we do, but we don’t like to acknowledge it, because it interferes with our central national cultural myth of equality and opportunity. The second, though, validates the question, because it is true that our class system is different. Part of the difference is structural and part of it is psychological, and one reinforces the other. The difference begins with the absence of a hereditary aristocracy in this society. It was never transplanted, because hereditary aristocrats have no need to go hack and sweat their way through a new world; they’re already masters of the one they’re in. With no firmly-ensconced upper class, there was room for the creation of a new one based on something other than birth. While early America certainly inherited the cultural assumptions of “good breeding,” and they meant something far more substantive by the term “gentleman” than most contemporary Americans could ever understand, the class structure was more fluid here.

The second major reason for the distinctiveness of our class system from that of the Old World is racism.The entire British American enterprise, once it began to take off in the 1640s, was based on the wealth produced by captured, transported, enslaved Africans–over 12 million of them. The more we study the early modern British Atlantic world, the more clear that becomes. That was, of course, unmistakable in Barbados or South Carolina, but it was just as true of the commercial ports of Liverpool, Boston, and New York–just one or two steps removed. Racism as we know it–the assumption that one ethnic group is inherently superior to another, giving it the right to rule and exploit–or at least to denigrate and marginalize–the other group–coalesced, hardened, and wrote itself into law as the slave economy grew.

The Civil War was fought against slavery, not against racism. The national effort to ensure a new society in which black Americans had an equal opportunity to participate lasted 12 whole years after one of the worst wars in modern history, before the country lost interest and let the Southern white supremacists take over again. Why? Racism.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s WAS a fight against racism. It enjoyed remarkable and unusual success in changing the legal structures that had institutionalized racism, particularly in the openly-apartheid South.

But racism was never, and is not now, a Southern phenomenon. When MLK’s marchers demonstrated against housing discrimination in suburban Detroit, they were attacked and beaten by mobs of local whites. The ghettos of Northern cities weren’t there just because people like to live around their own people. They were there because those people weren’t allowed to live anywhere else.

In 1970, the Federal judge for whom my dad worked wrote the first court-ordered busing plan to desegregate public schools in compliance with the law. It was called Plan Z. The death threats were bad enough that he was under the protection of the U.S. Marshals for a time. But by then, Nixon and the Republican Party had already successfully deployed their new “Southern strategy,” exploiting the resentment and fear of Southern whites who were watching the riots in the North and California on TV, and who were happy to support calls for “law and order” and appeals to “the silent majority.” Ironically, in that sense, George Wallace had run as an open segregationist independent, and had taken enough votes from Nixon that his victory was narrow. It wouldn’t be in ‘72. I used to think that a neo-Wallace candidacy would be impossible now. That was before 2016. A lot of us were happily complacent about a lot of things before 2016.

And this past week, a subcontractor for my wife’s parents was arrested after brandishing an automatic rifle at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters. That brings us up to 2020.

Racism is tightly bound up with poverty. That’s one of the main reasons it’s so hard for us to get our heads around it–those of  us who are trying to do that, anyway. The two feed each other. When you set up a society in which one ethnic group is systematically, automatically disadvantaged–which our ancestors most certainly did, whether in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or Philadelphia, Mississippi–that group is going to be disproportionately poor. That poverty will persist, generation after generation, artificially amplified and structured by an entire complex system of discrimination. Both the discrimination and the poverty will wreak havoc on the souls of those in the affected group, as they always do with human beings. Crime, self-destruction, hopelessness, an inability to take control over one’s own life and impose direction and purpose on it–these are the classic individual and social pathologies of poverty and disadvantage.

The white poor share much of this, of course. There are more white people on welfare in this country than black people, simply because there are more poor white people in this country than poor black people. But black people are affected out of proportion to their numbers, because the other element–the racist discrmination element–affects them uniquely.

That brings us to something MLK Jr and others figured out early on: there is no fighting racism without tackling poverty–black and white. And brown–historically, there was no place in the U.S. where you would find a more toxic concentration of the pathologies inflicted on a group of people by poverty and marginalization than on an American Indian reservation.

Lower-class American whites have always been able to direct their resentment toward black people rather than at the classes above them. “Race” trumps class in this country. That is the final piece of the answer to the question about the American class system. Those with more wealth and power–white of course–have always been able to exploit this lower-class white resentment whenever it suited their interests. But that paints poorer whites as passive dupes, and a close examination pokes holes in that assumption. “Why don’t poor white Americans vote their class interest?” ask perpetually-befuddled observers from outside our society. The answer is, because they are voting their RACE interest, which carries very real privilege. They believe this privilege gives them an advantage in life, and that surrendering it–allowing the non-privileged to have equal access–is acquiescing in their own subsuming.

This is the fallacy of the zero-sum game–the fallacy that Adam Smith famously exposed in 1776 when he touted the advantages of free-market capitalism (as we call it) over imperial mercantilism (closed-trade systems). The fallacy of the zero-sum game is that wealth–or power–is of finite quantity, such that if I take a bigger slice of the pie, it leaves everyone else a smaller one. In the zero-sum game worldview, it’s us against them. Take yours before someone else gets it. But the best thing by far that free-market capitalism taught us is that wealth can be created. We can create opportunity.

It is true that, today, we are being forced to face the very worst thing about free-market capitalism: that it assumed unlimited growth based on unlimited resources, and resources, it turns out, ARE limited, so we must learn not to be wasteful and to turn our one-way throw-away economies into more circular ones. That has people scared, and it fuels that defensive instinct to hold on to what’s yours and to see the disadvantaged as a direct threat–especially if you are already on the bottom rung of the ladder.

But there is more to it, and the rest of it is not as easy to read, or as easy to excuse. The rest of this will not shy away from some ugly truths. Historians can’t afford to do that. What follows may offend you. I certainly hope so.

We humans have an innate desire to feel superior to each other. It takes an exceptionally healthy and happy soul to be free of that. Primates are socially hierarchical. When you feel close to the bottom of your society, you are likely to cling fiercely to your sense of superiority over anyone below you. As Gene Hackman’s character relates to his FBI partner in the movie Mississippi Burning, his poor-white father once said to him, “Son, if you’re not better than a nigger, who ARE you better than?” It is certainly true that saying such a thing out loud is not as accepted as it used to be. That is because things HAVE changed. But it is equally true that a lot of Americans still feel that way, whether they admit it to themselves or anyone else or not. Things haven’t changed as much as they need to.

Rich people, of course, can afford to distance themselves from such impoliteness, and always have. They don’t have to speak the words and they don’t even have to feel them. They just reap the profits from the entire system. Their sense of superiority is on much firmer ground.

But even MLK didn’t ask us to stop judging each other. He just asked us to stop judging each other based on ethnicity. That was in 1963. We name roads after him and have a holiday for him, but that is self-congratulatory. He was far more radical than we’d like to acknowledge. He understood the connections between racism, systemic poverty, the distractions of imperial wars, in which the shock troops are poor kids in uniforms.

Here’s what racism really truly looks like in everyday, “respectable” life in our society. I am going to put things into words here that are not my words. Please do not lift them out of context or quote them so that they might be mistaken for my own words and attitudes.

It’s not just the overweight working-class white thirty-something brandishing the automatic rifle at the protesters. It’s your nice, unassuming retired aunt who reluctantly admits, after a few drinks and more than a little pressing, to being racist. She would never brandish a rifle in public. She deplores that. But she votes.

It’s the retired couple from up North who, in the course of calmly justifying their choice in 2016, sincerely offer the observation that, in their experience, black people are the only group of people who refuse to work–who just want everything handed to them. 

It’s the guy on the corner yelling at the BLM protesters because the police have good reason to be jumpy with black men, since most of the criminals are black men, and once in a while, a mistake will be made, and there’s no such thing as white privilege when white people have to work for everything and black people just get special treatment. And it’s too bad about the kid in the Chicago projects but the sad truth is, he would have just grown up to be a drug dealer anyway. That guy votes.

And it’s the rich businessman in the two million dollar house on the river with his gigantic homemade sign who would never admit to being a racist. He votes. And donates.

Here’s the crux of today’s American racism: The problem with black people is black people, simple as that, and while the rednecks with their Confederate flags are obnoxious and distasteful, they aren’t wrong. Americans who subscribe to this will be careful about when,where, and to whom they say this out loud–if they say it out loud at all–but it’s there. And it is either the tacit or explicit opinion of the majority of people who have decided many of our most recent elections.

And that will only change when those of us who do not share this opinion out-vote them. The numbers are there. But not enough show up. And then they get gerrymandered…but we have made real progress pushing back on that. Now is the time to take advantage of it. Racists vote.

But in everyday life–when it’s not election day, and when there’s no protest–we just have to start calling out racism for what it is. In my experience, that has not led to huge unpleasant scenes. Then again, I’m not putting myself in social situations with the hard-boiled and then challenging them. That’s not for me. If you can do it, you have my respect.

Calling it out for what it is will be easier when we know it’s out there and we’re prepared to hear it from “nice” people. Then we’re not so taken aback, kicking ourselves later for not saying anything. It IS out there. It’s everywhere. And as long as it can hide, it’s safe.

One thoughtful push-back to a racist comment, and one vote, may not seem like much. But that’s everything. That’s the solution. If you’re doing it, you’re not the only one. And network-theory researchers have proven that one such action has quantifiable, exponential ripple effects that you, as the instigator, will never know about. But don’t take it on faith; there’s evidence.

That checkout boy in 1968 might or might not feel emboldened to say the same thing today. The fact that we don’t know means we have lots of work left to do. But it’s work we can all do, in our regular lives, while we go about our regular business. I don’t remember if my mom said anything to the checkout boy. What I remember is that she was terrified, as they announced the city-wide curfew effective immediately, in anticipation of rioting, and she rushed to get home to her baby. We all have our own lives and our own people to take care of. What I do know is, in 1968 in a white grocery store in Memphis, if she did say something reproachful to him, she would have been in a distinct minority. That is not true now. For all those who suffered so much to get us to that point, and for ourselves and our kids, let’s build on that.


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