The New Racism

Roundup
tags: MLK, Civil Rights Act, African American



Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.

...The Southern historian C. Vann Woodward famously described the civil rights movement as the Second Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction, of course, began at the conclusion of the Civil War and led to the election of hundreds of black politicians across the South. One of those black politicians, a South Carolina legislator named Thomas Miller, later described the era with great pride: “We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb ... rebuilt the bridges and reestablished the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”

But in 1877, the Republican Party agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for putting its presidential candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, in the White House, and the period of biracial democratic government came to an end. White “Redeemers,” as they were known, undid all the Reconstruction-era reforms they could. They shuttered the new schools and charities; they stopped building bridges and funding ferries. “Spend nothing unless absolutely necessary,” Florida’s new Democratic governor instructed his legislature in 1877. Most crucially, they designed laws to eliminate the black vote and enforced those laws with waves of vigilante violence. A mere dozen years after it began, the First Reconstruction was over.

The end of the Second Reconstruction will not be so dramatic. But the systematic way in which Republican majorities in Southern statehouses are undoing so many of the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement suggests that the end is nigh. Whether it’s by imposing new voter-ID laws, slashing public assistance, refusing Medicaid expansion, or repealing progressive legislation like North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, the GOP-controlled governments of Southern states are behaving in ways that are at times as hostile to the interests of their African American citizens as Jim Crow Democrats were half a century ago. As David Bositis told me, “Black people in the South have less political power now than at any time since the start of the civil rights movement.”

Of course, that flies in the face of the newly popular notion that Southern blacks have never enjoyed more political clout. Whether it was black Mississippians helping Senator Thad Cochran win the Republican run-off in Mississippi in June or the potential for African American voters in North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana to carry Democratic Senate candidates in those states to victory this November, “black voters,” Nate Cohn recently wrote in The New York Times, “are poised to play a pivotal role in this year’s midterm elections.” But these will likely be pyrrhic victories. At the state level, Republicans can continue to win by catering exclusively to white voters, pushing the parties even further apart and making state laws ever more extreme. The fact that black people in the South still have the right to vote, and they’re still able to elect black politicians at the state and local levels, is what makes the end of the Second Reconstruction so much more insidious than the end of the First. Lacking white politicians to build coalitions with, those black politicians are rendered powerless. As Kareem Crayton, a University of North Carolina law professor, told me, “The situation today has the semblance of what representation looks like without very much ability to actually exercise it.” ...





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