In 1962, in the midst of the Cold War and the civil rights movement, Edmund Wilson published a book that decried the Civil War literature of “patriotic gore” by which men and women of the time justified horrors and bore tremendous burdens. Wilson was a realist who believed that power and conquest, rather than justice, were the root of all wars, including the Civil War and the Second World War. Wilson’s last essay examined the mind of Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose Civil War experiences shaped his Supreme Court opinions, and for whom, Wilson says, “might makes rights.” Wilson was hardly opposed to this unsentimental formulation, but it turns back against his own cynicism with regard to the anti-slavery cause and it raises the political stakes: defeat your enemies.
We haven’t laid the Civil War burdens down, because we have to relearn the lesson with every new situation that shows that Union victory and Confederate defeat live on for many “white” Americans who sentimentally revere the cause of the Old South. The massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, was the impetus, in Texas, for Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert to make a useful suggestion on July 18, 2015. At a rally in San Antonio’s Travis Park (named for a hero of the Alamo defenders), where he and others called for taking down a statue honoring Confederate soldiers, he said that wherever the statue ends up, it should be accompanied by a text that makes clear that those soldiers fought for the dishonorable cause of slavery. The text, which Calvert brought with him, is the Texas Declaration of Causes of Secession, stating the Confederates’ intent to fight for slavery and white supremacy. Added text could also point out that the statue was put up in 1899 during a new nationwide battle, over populism, that threatened to supplant sectional conflict with a new class politics.
Some Republicans desperately searching for an excuse to leave standing the symbols of the Confederacy argue that we can’t change history, as if history were something fixed in the past rather than something that has meaning for us today. By all means, let’s not erase history; let’s remember it all. We can change the meaning of the Confederacy now. The Confederate battle flag that South Carolina’s legislature recently decided to remove from the state capitol grounds was only put up at the capitol to protest civil rights in the mid-20th century, not to promote slavery in the mid-19th century. The huge Confederate memorial bas-relief at Stone Mountain in Georgia was dedicated in 1971, not 1871. Vice President Spiro Agnew attended the ceremony, for by then the Republican Party was in hot pursuit of its “Southern Strategy” of winning over the Democratic voters who had supported Alabama Governor George Wallace’s independent candidacy in 1968. The Republican Party sold itself to racist whites to hold on to power in Washington, just as previous generations of Democratic Party leaders had done. In our era, the Republican Party owns the Confederate flag politically; congressional Republicans have not allowed a vote to ban the Confederate flag at national parks. As Lee Atwater advised his party, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a politician couldn’t say “Nigger, nigger”—but he could say other things and know that the voters would hear the dog-whistle of race prejudice: “Southern heritage,” “tough on crime,” “war on drugs,” “welfare reform,” “mandatory sentencing,” “zero tolerance,” “underclass,” “reverse racism,” “stand your ground.”
Let’s also tell the story of the huge costs to Americans of our acceptance of political leaders who have used racism in this way. Any time that a movement demands social justice for working people, the racist card is played. Rush Limbaugh, for example, played this card when he called Obamacare reparations for slavery, by which he hoped to turn white people away from universal health insurance. Politicians used the race card to defeat populism, disrupt trade unions, cut unemployment insurance, restrict public housing, lessen progressive taxation, stymie full employment, oppose equal pay, regulate immigration, challenge affirmative action for higher education admissions, end federal voting rights enforcement, and oppose voter coalitions for social justice candidates. Racism is a major contributor to our institutionalized inequality: the race-biased criminal justice system, including juvenile justice and school-based punishment; our huge prison industry and exceptionally high rate of incarceration; underfunded public schools; the worst rate of child poverty and highest level of infant mortality among developed countries; the highest rate of workers marginal to the labor market; the white-male-dominant political class; the collapse of black family wealth and the enormous increase in national wealth held by the 1%; and immeasurable wasted talent. And this does not begin to address the personal distress and suffering of black people, so vividly expressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent Between the World and Me, where he describes, for instance, how institutional racism entraps young poor black men, whose bodies are the objects of state control and whose characters are warped by prison culture.
Most of the gains for racial justice date from three eras only: the military defeat of the Confederacy and Reconstruction, the New Deal, when overwhelming economic disaster created a broad electoral coalition for public welfare, and the Great Society, when unusually large congressional Democratic majorities gave support to civil rights legislation at a time when the Republicans had not yet launched their Southern Strategy. Reaction—symbolized by the erection of Confederate memorials—was vigorous on all these occasions, and non-black people benefitted more than black people, a point made by Ira Katznelson, who aptly labeled it the era “when affirmative action was white.” But the alignment of civil rights groups with the New Deal began the process of realigning national politics for the civil-rights victories of the 1960s.
In the post-segregation era, as Adolph Reed calls it, race politics was reorganized through the institutions of the liberal welfare state and two-party system. The limitations and traps of these systems drove many black-power militants to find other directions, but the mainstream was tracked into social services and litigation—effective against racist unions and employers—and into electoral ghettoes and patronage politics, which was less productive.
Racial inequality and poverty were perceived as marginal to the American success story rather than as endemic to it. The Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 was the signal of a missed opportunity to transform American society by empowering the working classes through their own organizations. Instead, Nixon promoted “black capitalism” and the War on Drugs. In retrospect, we see the simultaneous mobilization of businessmen from the North and the South in new organizations, such as the Labor Law Reform Group and the Business Roundtable, to fight unions and regulation and support pro-capitalist, white, Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell, a combination that emerged victorious in the Reagan Republican coalition. Reagan’s presidency—with Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—was the backdrop to Coates’s fearful childhood in Baltimore.
More recently, the appalling costs of Bush’s war on terrorism and the Great Recession threatened the Republicans’ grip on power, but since the election of Obama, Republicans have fought relentlessly to prevent the crisis of neoliberalism from becoming an opening for a new social-justice movement. The Republican leaders’ preferred story has been the need for austerity, which presents social benefits as simply unaffordable and in any case a disincentive to entrepreneurship, but to carry that astringent argument in the midst of massive economic need, Republicans have required the reinforcement of dog-whistle appeals at election time. The Republicans doubled down by demonizing blacks, Latino immigrants, and Muslims. Remarkably, they were caught out when the symbolic racial weapons of the Confederacy were really used in Charleston. Caught out so far. The mass media are more comfortable with symbolism than with the details of widespread police bias against and violence toward black citizens. But activists and policy experts have successfully broadcast the systematic death toll since Michael Brown’s death, which has made it hard for the media to ignore.
A lot depends now on how community and political activists capitalize on the moment to turn heightened public awareness and campaigns for symbolic changes into changes in political power and public policies. The laws need to change in order to change the racial practice across policy domains and the power to change the policies is the democratic power of people mobilized to achieve racial justice. Political action takes many forms and success involves the development and application of many skills. As San Antonio discusses how to represent the meaning of the statue in Travis Park, new campaigns have sprung up: a brave high-school student, Kayla Wilson, is petitioning her school board to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School. In Irving, Texas, outside Dallas, Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen-year-old son of a Sudanese immigrant, was put in handcuffs when he proudly brought a homemade electronic clock to show his teacher. His case has rolled into Texas ACLU campaigns against racial profiling and criminalizing student behavior. The Obama Justice Department has joined the litigation against Texas’s voter identification and districting laws. But there’s pushback, too. In Texas, Trump regaled 15,000 in Dallas while police staged a boisterous rally against alleged cop-haters in Austin. Fox News and Republican operatives have launched a smear campaign against Black Lives Matter.
Effective action also must learn from the past to avoid missteps. Black Lives Matter is creating new power by mobilizing community activists to imagine a better future and by confronting political leaders like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to address the crisis at their rallies. Yet Clinton the realist had a trenchant response to the BLM spokesperson who demanded recognition of oppression: changing hearts is fine, she said, but getting power is the key. Community mobilization probably has a long road ahead, given the institutional depth of the racism that Coates invokes and the need to learn about institutional power and to create political skills. Inevitably and constructively, a plurality of voices is debating what to do. A big challenge is to respond to the alienation of black people (and many others) from democracy by linking their values to their interests in the institutions of democratic power.
There are lessons about this in the history of racial hierarchy and domination, and in the recurrent use of white nostalgia for the Old South, but also in the history of racial justice movements and their successes and failures. Many racists cannot be converted; as Holmes might say, they should be defeated. But it’s also notable that a source of nostalgia is white distress. Though black unemployment is twice as high as white unemployment, the poverty rate among white men has increased by fifty percent in the last generation. The “good old days” are gone. The success of past racial-justice movements is linked to the acute perception of opportunities for change in the American political system, which Gerald Berk and Dennis Galvan characterize as a complex institutional composition whose features are decomposable and recombinable. Among the missteps of past racial justice movements is dropping out or indulging in military reverie like Huey Newton, who one former Black Panther calls “a fucking maniac” in Stanley Nelson’s new film, The Black Panthers.
One lesson from the past is that while movements created meaning and applied pressure in order to escape cycles of pressure and repression, movement activists also networked broadly to gain knowledge and find allies for effective action. These cycles are structured by the American two-party system rules because they make it easier for elites to absorb insurgents while insurgents’ tactics are directed to disruption and escape. The biographies of A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. among the most effective past leaders, reveal their constant personal movement to connect with and activate diverse others and independent organizations. The recent successes of the gay rights movement shows that it’s still possible. But even better would be changing the laws to create multi-party politics, as Lani Guinier outlined in her critique of voting district litigation, because it would empower the voters rather than the leaders. The racial justice movement should use every resource and a vision of changing the electoral rules could be part of its agenda.
Independent organization that teaches skills and builds leadership for action to change the racism that pulses through public authority is a priority, but, even now, voting is a power resource that every citizen has that is simply going to waste for failure of supporters of racial justice to think creatively about it and connect citizens to their interests. The stakes seem high enough, even if voting is only an opportunity to register strong opposition. Did it matter that Reagan and G. W. Bush were elected? Did it matter that Obama won rather than Romney? What would Romney have done with a Congressional majority? Won’t it matter next year if Trump or Jeb Bush is elected—as we see Republicans campaign against Black Lives Matter—rather than virtually any Democrat? It took only twenty-five percent of the voting-eligible public to elect Republicans to majorities of both houses of Congress; although Republicans gained about thirty-five seats from gerrymandering, in many other places the turnout was abysmal. Many activists prefer the local level as the more advantageous ground for positive action in contrast to opposition to national partisan hegemony. Local action could be positive: local school boards, city councils, and police departments all respond to the power that is expressed on election day. The possibilities for using unmobilized electoral resources could be great because from Jefferson, Missouri, to San Antonio, Texas, there are many electorally inactive working-class voters.