On the day South Carolina lowered the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, the first excerpt of Harper Lee’s long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman, appeared. The flag had been finally taken down after a white supremacist gunman shot nine African-American parishioners at a historically black church in Charleston some weeks earlier. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, sparking the Civil War over 150 years ago.
Lee, meanwhile, was publishing her first book in over 50 years since To Kill A Mocking Bird, a novel about a racially charged trial set in the South during the 1930s. Go Set a Watchman is both a prequel and sequel — written as a first draft to To Kill a Mockingbird but set 20 years later. In the first book, Atticus Finch is a liberal hero, berated as a “nigger lover”; in the second, to the dismay of his anti-racist daughter, he is attending public meetings to oppose integration and equal voting rights.
The two events — lowering of the flag and release of the book — were of course unrelated. And yet there was a synchronicity in their occurrence that transcended mere coincidence. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner, one of the South’s most eminent writers, once argued. “It’s not even past.”
And so it was that as the flag came down and the book came out, each event reaching back scores of years to delve deep into the roots of the nation’s racial conflict, America remained embroiled in an ongoing period of heightened awareness about the value of black life. Throughout the nation, a new generation of activists rallied around the slogan #BlackLivesMatter, as video testimony of black people being killed or injured by policemen went viral. In a country that not long ago celebrated the election of its first black president, the sanctity of black life had still not been settled and was instead being vigorously debated and protested.
There has never been a time when race and racism has not been a significant feature of American political culture — explicitly or otherwise. Cultures do not come by such obsessions lightly. They pick at them like scabs until they bleed, and mistake the consequent infection for the original wound. And then, like a hardy virus, the fixations survive all attempts at inoculation by mutating into new and more stubborn strains.
Anti-black racism was, of course, never the sole example of white supremacy or systemic discrimination. Slavery and segregation were preceded by the genocide of American Indians and coincided with, among other things, the internment of the Japanese, the Chinese Exclusion Act and mass deportations to Mexico, not to mention anti-Semitism, anti-Catholic prejudice or Islamophobia.
But while African Americans were never alone in having to deal with racism, their experiences have dominated the national conversation. For most of the last century, the basic question — Are you black or white? — shaped where you might live, how long you might live and where they could bury you when you died. That basic divide underpinned the economy, polity and culture. There really was no escaping it. And for good reason — the country was built on, among other things, racism.
“No African came in freedom to the shores of the New World,” wrote 19th-century French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville in his landmark book Democracy in America. “The Negro transmits to his descendants at birth the external mark of his ignominy. The law can abolish servitude, but only God can obliterate its traces.”
The oppression of African Americans was not incidental to the way in which America developed but fundamental to it — not a glitch in the matrix but the matrix itself. With the exception of Native Americans, most other groups have been able to redefine and reposition themselves within the nation’s racial and ethnic constellation. Asian Americans became regarded as a “model minority,” while, as Noel Ignatiev points out in How the Irish Became White, Catholics (and to a different extent Jews) were able to redefine themselves as white. New immigrants found they could leapfrog African Americans, in no small part, because the bottom of the ladder was already taken and those who occupied it could not be moved. Even black immigrants who were not enslaved in this country could shoehorn a version of themselves into the American dream.
When U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his speech to the 2004 Democratic convention — the speech that made him famous — he evoked his father’s arrival from Kenya to Hawaii thus: “Through hard work and perseverance, my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place, America, that shone as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many who had come before him.” His father arrived in 1959 — preceding a decade of determined and at times violent struggle across the country for civil rights. For a Kenyan-American, it may have been “magical”; to most African Americans, the ostensible “beacon of freedom and opportunity” had never been lit.
This duality — between white and black (in their various iterations) — was central to shaping American politics for generations. Abolition prompted the Civil War, then came Reconstruction and the retrenchment to Jim Crow leading up to the civil rights movement. The period after the civil rights victories that accorded African Americans formal equality effectively set the stage for the next 50 years of racially entrenched electoral politics.
The evening after President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, journalist Bill Moyers wrote: “I found him in a melancholy mood … I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,’ he said.”
Republicans accepted the delivery gladly. White Southerners, abandoned the Democratic Party en masse and flocked to Republicans, who enticed them through racially coded messages. This became known as Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.”
As its name suggests, the realignment was most pronounced in the South. In the 90 years before 1964, Republicans never won a majority of Southern states in a presidential election; after 1964, the GOP lost the former confederacy only once, in 1976 to Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia.
But racism was not limited to the South nor was the strategy’s appeal. After the riotous years of the late 1960s, white flight to the suburbs accelerated. In 1964, Alabama Governor George Wallace performed well in Democratic primaries in states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland. Describing the evolution of the Republicans’ racial appeal, Lee Atwater, one-time chair of the Republican National Committee and member of the Reagan administration, said in 1981: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger.’ That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing [and] states’ rights. …You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. Obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.’ ”
Or as President Richard Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman: “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes that while not appearing to.”
For years this served the Republicans well even if it served the nation ill. It seized on symbols that made its contempt for racial equality clear while falling short of explicitly owning its bigotry. Ronald Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi — just a few miles from where three civil rights workers were brutally murdered in 1964 — with a speech about states’ rights, the rallying cry for the Confederacy. George Bush Sr. used the case of Willie Horton, a black felon on furlough from a prison in Massachusetts, where Michael Dukakis was governor, who fled and raped a white woman. When George Bush Jr. was a candidate, he spoke at Bob Jones University, which at the time did not allow interracial dating. All these cases are clear signifiers of racial allegiance and racist intent, the dog whistles that everyone can hear. Such were the racial impulses that were marshaled and employed, attracted and repelled, stoking enmity but also providing a certain degree of certainty about how America worked (or didn’t work, depending on your point of view and place in the hierarchy).
But over the past 30 years, for reasons local and global, demographic and social, racial, ethnic and religious, that central dynamic has been complicated, producing fresh anxieties, the potential for new allegiances and eroding old certainties.
Mass immigration, primarily from Mexico and Central America, means Hispanics (who may be black or white) have outstripped African Americans as the largest minority. Every month, 50,000 Latino voters become eligible to vote. Since 2008, most babies born in America have not been white. By 2045, whites will be a minority along with everybody else. Meanwhile, the fastest-growing single racial category is Asian-American, while the fastest-growing “racial” group in the census overall comprises those who identify as “more than one race.”
These were the developments Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen referred to two years ago when ostensibly explaining why moderates struggle in the Republican Party. “People with conventional views [by which Cohen means white, conservatives] must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America.”
Even geographical divides no longer hold in the way they used to. Most well-publicized cases of racial violence that have taken place in recent times — Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamar Rice, Renisha McBride — took place in the North (New York, Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, respectively). Of the 10 most segregated cities in the country, only Miami is in a former Southern state. Of the 10 states showing the steepest increase in those identifying as “more than one race,” six (including Mississippi) are in the South, while all five states with the sharpest rise in their Latino population are in the South. Nikki Haley, governor of South Carolina — where the flag was lowered and the mass shooting at a black church occurred in June — is of Indian descent, as is Bobby Jindal, governor of post-Katrina Louisiana. Both are Republicans.
When Tea Party members declare they want to take their country back, they are in no small part referring to a return to the ethnic and racial landscape with which everyone was familiar and a significant section of white society benefitted from.
With both the South and wider electorate no longer what it was, the “Southern strategy” lost its potency. Nationally it is no longer an anchor for Republicans but a millstone. Tying their fortunes to the white vote made electoral sense in the early 1970s. But since 1980, the white share of the electorate has fallen in every consecutive election bar one — 1996, when Ross Perot ran. The more black and Latino voters the Republicans alienate, the more white voters they need to replace them, leaving the party fishing for a larger number in a smaller pool. “The demographics race we’re losing badly,” said South Carolina senator and presidential candidate, Lindsey Graham, in 2012. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”
This is precisely why Donald Trump’s xenophobic fulminations about Mexico “sending its rapists” to the U.S. (and his many other comments since then) have caused such concern among the Republican establishment. The party can afford to lose the African-American vote en masse, but it cannot rely on the white vote alone. “Latinos would be a more diverse voting bloc if there were reasons to vote Republican,” Christine Sierra of the University of New Mexico’s Southwest Hispanic Research Institute told me in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. “But without those reasons, it’s possible they could become as cohesive a voting bloc as African Americans.” Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney among Latinos 71% to 21% nationwide, with significant margins in key battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Meanwhile the roots to Trump’s popularity — at the time of writing he leads the Republican presidential polls — lie not just in the ethnic and the electoral but the economic. For the poorest 90% of U.S. families — the overwhelming majority of whom are white — median income has been effectively stagnant for a generation. Meanwhile social mobility has stalled.
A Heartland Monitor poll in 2013 showed that two-thirds of adults believe their children will enjoy less financial security than the adults do and face more challenges than opportunities. A year earlier, a slim majority defined getting ahead as simply “not falling behind.”
This is a global phenomenon. Across Europe, far-right parties are on the rise, drawing support from precisely the same constituency as the Tea Party in the U.S. — lower-middle-class white people who are economically and culturally insecure. But in the U.S., this class calcification presents a fundamental challenge to the mythology on which American patriotism is built and which white Americans are particularly likely to buy into — that if you work hard, you can get ahead, that each year will be better than the last and that each generation is more prosperous. So many white Americans do not sense their experience compared with non-white Americans as one of relative privilege — because over the past 30 years, they have not been relatively better off.
And Republicans, more than any other group, are more likely to see the causes for this decline as coming from abroad as well as at home. As such the coalition of forces that came together in the eighties to create the modern Republican party is under severe strain. Businesses wants immigration reform; xenophobes don’t. Libertarians want less government surveillance; security advocates want more. In a moment of economic stagnation, Republicans are the fastest growing group to fear foreign trade (a paradox because they embrace the party most in favor of neo-liberal globalization) at a time of growing international competition from China and, to a far lesser extent, India. In an extended period of military conflict in which the nation has encountered both terrorism at home and military defeat abroad, they are most likely to fear the “threat of radical Islam.”
In short, being a white American does not bring quite the same privileges as it used to either at home or abroad. “Owing to the relative decline of its economic and, to a lesser extent, military power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many policy options,” concluded the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates analysis from all U.S. intelligence agencies, in November 2008.
It is through this lens that one must view the rabid right-wing reaction to Obama’s presidency — who was elected the same month that assessment was made — and the rise of the Tea Party. There are many completely reasonable disagreements conservatives can have with Obama on any number of issues. The standard liberal critique is that the intensity of the opposition to him is driven, in no small part, by racism. That’s true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t begin to catch the depth and breadth of the anxieties that are laid at his feet. Obama is not only black, he’s mixed race at a time of growing miscegenation, the son of an immigrant at a time of growing xenophobia, the son of a Muslim at a time of growing Islamophobia, cosmopolitan at a time of growing insularity, president at the time of growing cynicism about politics.
In the minds of many white Conservatives, there is an elision between whom they think Obama is (an immigrant, a fraudster, a non-American) and what they think he does (assist immigrants and fraudsters in contravention of American ideals).
“They are acutely racially conscious,” pollster Stanley Greenberg told me. “They are very aware that they are ‘white’ in a country that is becoming increasingly ‘minority.’ [There] is a sense of him being foreign, non-Christian, Muslim — and they wonder what really are his motives for the changes he is advancing.”
So what does this all have to do with Black Lives Matter and the growing awareness of police brutality in black communities?
First of all, it means the resistance to equality among a small but significant section of the white community will get even more shrill and even, on occasion, violent. An April 2009 Homeland Security report, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, concluded: “The economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” It also surmised that “rightwing extremist groups’ frustration over a perceived lack of government action on illegal immigration has the potential to incite individuals or small groups toward violence.” The mass shootings in Charleston, scenes of Obama being greeted with Confederate flags and small Klan rallies are all testament to an increasingly desperate strain among an increasingly desperate section of white America. As we know from terrorism worldwide, the fact that they are few in number does not mean that they lack the ability to create mayhem and set a tone.
Secondly it means that the ability to combat white supremacy — its institutional underpinnings and political impulses — will demand more coalition-building among anti-racism activists. People forget that even the civil rights movement was a coalition that went beyond black America. The March on Washington in 1963 was backed by the largest religious groups and the labor union movement (it was a march for “Jobs and Freedom”).
But in a period when African Americans are no longer the largest minority, lasting political progress will hinge on its ability to broaden the base of support to take in the way in which the state has mistreated others — from the deportation of Latinos to the profiling of Muslims. Clearly that is a mutual and symbiotic process — it’s in the interests of both the Black Lives Matter movement and its potential allies and so can only come about by all involved realizing the mutual benefit. It is not a problem limited to different ethnic groups, but is prevalent among progressives. The Occupy movement, anti-war movement, marriage equality movement, minimum wage movement have all overlapped by somehow failing to meet in a way that could sustain one another. The only place where these disparate forces — blacks, the young, liberal whites, Muslims, feminists, Asian Americans, Latinos — have really come together is to elect Obama. Regardless of his abilities in office, that was always going to be insufficient, not just because he is only one person, but because the institutions in which he is embedded — the U.S. presidency and the Democratic leadership — owe their power in no small part to the status quo.
Where race is concerned, American segregation has divided not only blacks and whites, but all racial and ethnic groups and their struggles, balkanizing campaigns so that what are essentially human rights issues are understood as sectional interests: Muslims fight for Muslim rights, and Latinos fight for immigration reform while rarely making common cause beyond the occasional rhetorical flourish. In short, there are too few people fighting for each other or recognizing their goals in others. That was never helpful, but given new demographic realities, it is also unsustainable.
“The crisis,” wrote Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Black people are being killed wantonly at the hands of the state. That is not new. From slavery to the present day, the question of the value of black life — be it in dollars and cents or in voting rights as a citizen — has always been contested. But the political, economic, electoral, demographic and global moment in which those killings are taking place is one of massive and irreversible flux and cannot be countered with “old” forms of resistance. The symptoms are clear; a cure remains more elusive.