The Cycle of Deconstruction to Restore the Old Order

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

“There was the economic battle over resources whites contended were being diverted away from the working class to blacks, … and there were policies designed to disenfranchise black voters.” Another effort was to incarcerate black men and women…

No, that is not a report on the agenda of Donald Trump and the Republicans in 2017. It is how Peniel E. Joseph, professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas, described the Southern aristocracy’s reaction to Reconstruction after the Civil War. The result was the establishment of legalized apartheid via Jim Crow laws and terror campaigns to restore the old order.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was focused on ending those legal barriers to equality. Just as the defeat of slavery led to a deconstruction, passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s led the Republicans to develop their Southern Strategy. From Nixon, we got the “law and order” message which launched mass incarceration for mostly black and brown people. The Reagan years added messages about “welfare queens” as the kind of dog whistle described by Lee Atwater.

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….But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because 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 “N****r, n****r.”

Once again, these were efforts to deconstruct the changes and restore the old order.

By 2008, looming demographic shifts and the election of our first African-American president were met with what has been called a confederate insurgency. Over the last few years we watched as the norms that hold our democracy together were tossed aside in an unprecedented way because of this threat to the old order.

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

Is it any surprise that we now have a new “law and order” president with major efforts at voter suppression underway and a White House chief strategist whose talk about deconstructing the administrative state resonates with white working class people?

We’ve seen this movie before…two times. Whenever this country takes a major step forward to reconstruct the equality that was written into our founding documents (but never realized), we face this kind of backlash and deconstruction. In the past we’ve eventually come out on the right side of this struggle — albeit with a lot of sorrow and bloodshed. One has to wonder what it will take this time — or even if most of us have correctly identified what this struggle is really all about.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.