If the black political agenda of the post–civil rights era has been to influence the machinery of the federal government to black advantage, moving from protest to politics, the reelection of George W. Bush has shown that this agenda has failed.
At this point in time, African Americans have no viable political and economic program or platform to withstand the resurgent phenomenon of white nationalism, an aspect of the conservative movement that has been developing in the country in plain sight for the last four decades. As Carol Swain noted in The New White Nationalism in America (2002):
Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated the party’s ability to attract a significant majority of white votes whenever it champions racially tinged issues such as welfare and immigration reform, affirmative action, and crime reduction. Many of these Republican supporters have been attracted to the party’s racially conservative policies out of a concern and belief that the interests of white people are being trampled on by an insensitive government, a theme common among white nationalists.
The 2004 election consolidated the conservatives’ grip on the White House, the two chambers of Congress, the judiciary, the governorships, and state legislatures. The recent election was the triumph of the conservative politics that initially had crashed and burned during the 1964 election of Barry Goldwater. But it steadily marched onward to the election of Ronald Reagan, who became the first leader of a post–civil rights “redeemer” government. Bush is merely the second, but with a more profound and radical agenda.
As former Democratic Party national chairman Donald L. Fowler said of the recent rout:
I think we have come to an ending point in the long transition that began in 1968. During that time, the old Roosevelt Democratic majority has creaked and cracked away under various kinds of racial, religious, social, and international forces, and this election was the end point in that transition. I think we live in a country that is majority Republican now.
The country has entered into a postmodern version of the Jim Crow era. Blacks now have an edgy virtual equality with whites in a country that purports to be about “color blindness” and equal opportunity. In reality, however, it practices white nationalism, which uses both unofficial power and official power of the state to maintain white privilege. Conservative white Christians’ current complaints about how the filibuster was once used to “protect racial bias” merely underscore the very cynical but sophisticated nature of the right’s racial rhetoric.
Race was less of a wedge in this election because “racial issues”—affirmative action, crime, and welfare (codes for “blacks”)—had been neutralized, no longer seen as an albatross around the necks of Democrats, courtesy of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Instead, the new “black issue,” or major wedge issue, was gay marriage. This election was also a B&W replay of 1960s white backlash politics, which grew in response to the civil rights movement. However, this time the beast that stirred the ire of good, decent, Christian (read “mostly white”) folk wasn’t the threat of miscegenation but same-sex unions. The social conservatives’ bogeyman, the “homosexual agenda,” had materialized in a Massachusetts court that sanctioned equality for homosexuals in regard to marriage, which became the red meat drawing the faithful to the polls.
That racial issues were depoliticized did not mean that black and whites had achieved comity. In reality, it meant that blacks and black aspirations were no longer an issue that had to be contended with or addressed. Blacks had already been neutralized during the Clinton years, and the voting interests of blacks were not vigorously protected during the 2000 election by the Democrats. Kerry even threw in the towel when there were still outstanding votes to be counted in the recent election.
The Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm eerily recalls the Republican Party’s betrayal of newly freed slaves during the election of 1876. In order for Republican Rutherford Hayes to obtain the presidency in a hotly contested race, which wound up in Congress, the Republicans acceded to Southern Democrats’ demands for the removal of federal troops from the South. That accelerated the political disenfranchisement of Southern blacks, sanctioned by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which continued until the civil rights era.
Derrick Bell, author of Silent Covenants, views that episode and others in American history as one of many compromises that have characterized black and white interaction. Competing factions of whites make agreements—silent covenants—about blacks that exclude them in order to ensure peace with each other. That the Democrats decided not to challenge Bush’s questionable 2000 election underscored that they wanted peace (as vividly portrayed in Fahrenheit 9/11), which came at the expense of blacks.
As black nationalism came to an impasse by the mid-1970s, both suppressed by the state and also due to its own ideological incoherence, a more resurgent nationalism has made itself known, and it has had a profound effect on American society, and on African Americans in particular. The rise of conservatism in the last 40 years is predicated on the reemergence of the white nationalism rooted in the backlash politics of the civil rights era.
Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland (College Park), has outlined this phenomenon in White Nationalism, Black Interests (2003). Walters defines white nationalism as a “radical aspect of the Conservatism movement to use both unofficial power and the official power of the state to maintain White Supremacy by subordinating Blacks and other non-whites.”
Walters argues that the reemergence of white nationalism came about due to the rising status of African Americans and the use of the federal government to assist blacks. In the world of zero sum politics, a positive change in the status of blacks meant a loss for whites either psychologically or in redistributive policies. And one can see the outlines of such in the claims of “reverse racism,” the use of the Confederate flag, and Christianity as a rallying banner in the “cultural wars” against the homosexual and multicultural agenda.
Almost every policy—affirmative action, welfare, minority set-asides, etc.—that has come into existence via the federal government to assist blacks has been attacked, chipped away, delegitimized by the conservative movement, some using coded racial references (“welfare,” “underclass,” “crime,” “quota queen,” Willie Horton, etc.).
This resurgence has its roots in white Southerners decamping the Democratic Party and becoming Republicans and Republicans using a “southern strategy” to attract them. Ronald Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in the same county in Mississippi where three civil rights workers had been slain by the Klan. Reagan even talked about “states rights,” a rationale often invoked by white Southerners to keep blacks in a subordinate position without the benefit of federal intervention.
The Reagan-Bush years are often viewed as the first triumph of the New Right, its obtainment of state power, which led to the diminution of federal power and programs to help blacks. The recent reelection of George W. Bush is the consolidation of that power, assisted by his base of mostly white Christian evangelicals (who probably attend all-white churches). While some cited gay rights and abortion as evidence of lack of morality in America, a fair amount of them began voting GOP when the Democrats assisted blacks in obtaining their rights to vote and full rights of citizenship during the 1960s.
In From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Counter-Revolution, 1963–1993 (1996), historian Dan Carter noted how the GOP—especially the Darth Vader of American politics, Richard Nixon—understood the impact of Alabama’s Democratic governor George Wallace’s volatile mixture of race, populism, and anti-intellectualism on American politics and how it attracted whites outside of the South. Since then, Republicans have engaged in what Carter terms the “soft porn of racism,” the coded use of race for political purpose, a legacy bequeathed to them by Wallace and the political culture of the South.
Tucked away, hidden in the psycho- and political dynamics of race, is the phenomenon of “metaracism,” a term coined by Joel Kovel (White Racism, 1984). American society has progressed to the point where dominative racism, or direct oppression, has mostly ended. Instead, metaracism is now the mode of action, and it consists of indirect racial oppression or exclusion through economic and technocratic means. Lopping off millions from the welfare rolls, the high rate of black incarceration, or the bogus disenfranchisement of blacks are coldly performed by public policies, law, technocrats, or result from the structure of the economy. It doesn’t matter if the intent is to cause harm to blacks as long as the outcome is such.
Race was not sublimated in this election; it just no longer mattered. Rather, the black political agenda, predicated on what civil rights activist Bayard Rustin saw as requiring allies, has gone down to a resounding defeat. That Al Sharpton is now considered a national black leader, despite his poor showing in the Democratic primaries and his taking money and political assistance from the GOP, shows how utterly decrepit and cynical black leadership has become.
The ambiguity of contemporary racial practices can be described as “now you see it, now you don’t.” Convinced that they themselves have lived up to King’s soaring rhetoric more so than blacks, particularly in regard to judging people “by the content of their character,” most white Americans see no need to deal with the problem of racism. To many of them, racism has meant a white individual doing something bad against a black individual, and blacks have become a class of chronic complainers.
Yet structural inequality (a.k.a. white privilege) remains, and it’s hard to confront precisely because it tends to be invisible, and whites have a vested interest in keeping it invisible. It provides whites with the privilege of being white, or, more exactly, not being black. One aspect of a “Plausible Deniability” program, as Debra Dickerson explained in The End of Blackness (2004), is to see racism solely as an intentional individual phenomenon but not as “a sense of group position,” or the “organized accumulation of racial advantage.” But it is “a system,” argues Michael Brown and a group of six other scholars in Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Colorblind Society (2003), “best understood by observing actual behavior.”
Whitewashing builds its case on the related concepts of “accumulation” and “disaccumulation.” In labor markets and other realms, whites engage in “opportunity hoarding,” which allows a group to “acquire and monopolize access to valuable resources and privileges.” People understand that access to jobs and important information are also predicated on personal, familial, and network associations that tend to keep others outside those informal relationships.
Blacks are still discriminated against in housing, and housing segregation still exists, despite whites’ rhetoric to the contrary. This confirms that most whites still do not care to be neighbors of even the most successful blacks, the very people who supposedly epitomize “personal responsibility.” This has had a cumulative effect on education. Since most taxes for education are derived from local property taxes, this means that blacks, especially those segregated in inner cities, receive an inferior education. As Brown notes:
White Americans may support the principle of fair housing, but less than half say they are willing to act on this principle. In fact, when actual patterns of racial isolation are examined, it is clear that very few whites prefer integrated to segregated neighborhoods.
Examining crime and justice, employment, education, housing, poverty, political representation, and their intersection with race, the scholars of Whitewashing peel away the cloak of invisibility and empirically demonstrate that present-day racial inequalities have little to do with individual black failure. They are rooted in the sociological reality that whites as a group have advantages for themselves and “because these benefits seem so natural…they are taken for granted, experienced as wholly legitimate.”
Whites simultaneously see and refuse to acknowledge “how race permeates America’s institutions—the very rules of the game—and its distribution of opportunities and wealth.” Blacks, however, are seen as the “other,” as a race, but whiteness is invisible. The historic investment in “whiteness” has been challenged by policies such as affirmative action and greater political representation, which threaten previously uncontested racial monopolization in regard to work, income, education, and cultural capital. In response, white nationalism, a radical aspect of conservatism, seeks to maintain its supremacy.
The question that has to be faced is this: Will African Americans confront the new white nationalism with a new form of black accommodation? Only time will tell.
Norman Kelley's Rhythm & Business: The Political Economy of Black Music is now available in paperback from Akashic Books.