At New York yesterday, Jonathan Chait wrote a meditation on the persistence of racism after watching the acclaimed movie 12 Years a Slave. His main point is that the system of white supremacy that began with slavery relied as much on the dehumanization of African-Americans as on chains, and that the many conservatives today who deny white racism exists are largely blind to the more subtle but deadly ways in which black folk have been subjugated long after liberation from slavery.
I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet, but did recently during a long night at the hospital re-read portions of The Bloody Shirt, Stephen Budiansky’s 2008 book about the post-Civil War white terror in the former Confederacy that not only thwarted Reconstruction but ensured the former slave population would gain nothing from Emancipation other than the most ephemeral freedom.
The passage in the book that haunted me most was a 1865 letter from Edmund Rhett, a prominent South Carolina journalist, proposing a series of laws designed to keep the ex-slave “as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as is practicable.” His template was an early version of the “Black Codes” enacted in nearly all the former Confederate States, and focused on banning real estate ownership, enforcing unilateral agricultural “labor contracts,” punishing “vagrancy” (defined as being anywhere other than at work for a white overseer), and enforcing “discipline” (including not only penal servitude for “status” offenses but private administration of corporal punishment). These laws were intermittently enforced with occasional disruption by military authorities and Reconstruction state governments, but portions (especially the vagrancy laws) were reimposed across the region late in the nineteenth century. Needless to say, efforts to prevent public education for and voting by African-Americans accompanied the measures to keep them in economic and physical servitude.
Anyone with even a vague sense of history can see the echoes of the “Black Codes” in and beyond the South today. Some have continued more or less since the nineteenth century, such as a judicial and penal system that comes down hardest on the crimes and status offenses of the poor, and a savage opposition to labor rights and collective bargaining. Others are actually experiencing a renaissance, such as a renewed hostility to the kind of credit arrangements that briefly made widespread real property ownership possible, and a resegregation of education via white withdrawal from “government schools.” And then, of course, there are the periodic fights to reduce minority voting and representation. Some of the language we still hear today about those people seeking political power to seize the property of decent white folk are right out of the lexicon of the terrorists resisting Reconstruction and insisting “Black Rule” was inherently ruinous and corrupt.
Chait mentions other contemporary echoes of ancient white racist habits:
Conservatives have made endless jokes based on the strange premise that Obama is unable to express coherent thoughts unless reading from a teleprompter, defined health-care reform as “reparations,” imagined a Reagan-era program to subsidize telephone use for the indigent is actually “Obamaphones,” or complained when black entertainers or athletes socialize with the First Family. The accusations of racism that follow merely confirm to conservatives that black-on-white racism is a canard, that the balance of oppression has turned against them.
Progressives sometimes view this last phenomenon, the denial that white racism even exists, and the claim that white people are the real victims, as something new and strange and based on a flawed but understandable belief that the Civil Rights Act and the dismantling of Jim Crow should close the whole topic to discussion. But this, too, is an ancient meme. The subtext of Budiansky’s book is the extent to which white southerners convinced themselves and white people outside the South that they were the victims of Reconstruction, not the active and passive perpetrators of a strategy of organized terror designed to make the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution a dead letter.
So even if you believe conservatives who talk about white racism as an anachronism or deny their political agenda and messages are racially inflected are acting in good faith, it’s simply undeniable that we’ve heard all this before. The non-racial motivations of individual conservatives cannot blot out the heritage they continue consciously or unconsciously, and minority folk specifically and progressives generally don’t need to apologize for hearing the endlessly devious tactics and rationalizations of the neo-Confederacy when they are offered once again.