The History of White Backlash

It is important right now to pay attention to the growing group of African Americans who are telling us that the election of Donald Trump is reminiscent of previous eras in our history when there was a white backlash to the advancement of civil rights. That is the argument Jamelle Bouie made very well. Adam Serwer adds to the discussion by zeroing in on the movement known as Redeemers who ended the federal government’s role in Reconstruction following the Civil War. Noting that Southern Redemption, by which “the political power of Southern blacks was effectively extinguished,” he goes on to say:

Southern Redemption had been led by white Democrats and their paramilitary allies, but crucial to their decisive victory was the willingness of the Republican Party to abandon blacks in the South to their fate.

Given that our two political parties have switched roles in the fight for civil rights since the days of Reconstruction, that is an important message for Democrats to absorb right now. To avoid the development of a modern-day version of Jim Crow, we must not abandon the fight. The current battle extends beyond the civil rights of African Americans and must include those of immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQ and women.

Serwer frames this well with his comparison of the abandonment of advances made by African Americans during Reconstruction to the current threat to roll back what the Obama administration has accomplished. Perhaps it is a linguistic coincidence, but it is chilling to hear what Paul Ryan said about the situation we face today:

House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday that “this needs to be a time of redemption, not a time of recrimination.” But however hopefully the speaker meant it, the idea that America needs to be redeemed, like the notion that it needs to be made great again, rests on the notion that something has gone horribly wrong.

(Emphasis mine)

Serwer goes on to talk about some of the advancements made by the Obama administration that are likely to be reversed. He particularly mentions some that received too little attention as they were developing and therefore, might not be noticed as they are rolled back.

The Obama administration’s aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination law in housing, employment, and voting is likely to suffer. The Obama era saw an unprecedented rise in the Justice Department’s efforts to combat racial discrimination in local policing. Trump campaigned with the explicit support of unions representing law enforcement, and on “giving power back to the police.”

Here is the challenge for Democrats:

Democrats now face a renewed white-identity politics whose appeal will be immensely difficult to neutralize, and the notion that a more vigorous, left wing economics will return the white working class to the Democratic fold is likely a fantasy…

The uncomfortable truth is that…economic populism is most effective in American politics when it is paired with appeals to racism.

History tells us that it took over 60 years to roll back the effects of the Southern Redeemers on civil rights for African Americans. If Democrats retreat the way Republicans did back then, we could be setting this country up to repeat that cycle. Fighting against the current efforts at “redemption,” will be difficult and will often fail. But this time we need to keep reminding the American people that there is another way.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.