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Posts Tagged ‘Jim Crow’

Race to Nowhere

For over a century, black elites have pushed improved “race relations” instead of redistribution as the solution to inequality.

Jacobin  Issue 18 Summer 2015

“The Union as It Was. The Lost Cause, Worse than Slavery.” Illustration by Thomas Nast, 1874.

The new issue of Jacobin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of Union victory and emancipation, is out now.

When black progressives today think about the Civil War, they are often more struck by what didn’t happen than what did.

Michelle Alexander’s much-lauded The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a case in point. Citing W. E. B. Du Bois’s lament that “former slaves had ‘a brief moment in the sun’ before they were returned to a status akin to slavery,” Alexander intimates that abolitionists failed to see that slavery was just one instance in a series of forms of “racialized social control” that not only have reappeared, but have also “evolved” and “become perfected, arguably more resilient to challenge, and thus capable of enduring for generations to come.”

What this narrative of unremitting bleakness overlooks is that the South chose armed rebellion in order to maintain political control over its system of labor — a system that enslaved blacks while impoverishing white agricultural and industrial laborers. From the standpoint of Southern planters and industrialists, the most terrifying prospect of emancipation was the possibility that laborers, black and white, would eschew elite guidance and wield political power in the form of the ballot and office-holding to further their own interests.

It came as no surprise, then, that when former slaves did begin to make this prospect a reality, Southern elites responded not only with violence and political fraud, but also with an intellectual campaign carried out in newspapers, journals, fiction, poetry, and historical writing to demonstrate the incapacity of blacks for self-government and the corruption that would ensue when the unlettered and inexperienced held the reins of power.

What is more surprising, if lesser known, is the role that many black elites (along with their sympathetic white counterparts) played in ratifying aspects of white reactionary thought toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some twenty-five years after Appomattox the fact that black men and unpropertied whites could vote made possible the rise of the Populist Movement, which directly challenged the economic order of the South by “proposing to substitute popular rule for the rule of capital.”

Black elites, whose political viability depended on their perceived legitimacy as “race leaders,” were disturbed by the reality of poor blacks acting politically without their guidance or sanction. And when the planter and industrial elite struck back against Populism with violence and disfranchisement — a backlash that tended to make all blacks, and not merely workers, its target — black elites sought to meliorate these effects by proposing a transformation — not of the economic basis of society, but rather of the black image in the white mind — to improve “race relations.”

Indeed for nearly 130 years, black elites in the United States have been offering up improved “race relations” rather then interracial workers alliances against capital as the primary solution to American inequality.

From the moment the Civil War ended, the question of what an American society without slavery would look like dominated political discussion. If the inaugural issue of the Nation magazine opined that“Nobody whose opinion is of any consequence, maintains any longer that [blacks’] claim to political equality is not a sound one,” the actual picture was more complicated.

While many black commentators and freedmen expected emancipation to usher black Americans fully and without restriction into the nation’s civic, social, and economic life, relatively few white Americans — even among those who abhorred slavery and championed the freedman’s political rights — felt similarly.

And while many Americans, black and white, celebrated the idea that the freedmen would now be able to join the ranks of wage laborers, few of either race saw this change as a significant step towards enhancing the political and economic power of workers generally against employers and landowners in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Recent commentary on the limits of emancipation has typically made much of the lack of racial egalitarianism within the Republican Party and even among abolitionists, seeing within this the seeds of subsequent political defeats.

On this account what made the Civil War and the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s something like “non-events” (and what could likewise undermine any success at ending mass incarceration) was the failure to, as Michelle Alexander puts it, “address . . . racial divisions and resentments,” which thereby allowed the next “system of racialized social control [to] emerge.”

In bringing slavery to an end the Civil War opened up contestation not only over the place that former slaves would have in American society, but also over the role that wage earners and women would play in a post-slavery political order.

Jacobin-Series-3bdd91b95cfc219305403acaa1630163

Egalitarian visions, however, were met by concerted forces that did not want the end of slavery to lead to the complete emancipation of wage laborers. That is, any newly won freedoms should not address the way that market coercion severely limited the capacity of working Americans to control their lives and destinies. And while this limitation would ultimately prove equally consequential for the subsequent history of social justice, it has often been hidden by the significant shadow cast by the narrative of American racism and white supremacy.

When John William De Forest, a former Union officer and Freedman’s Bureau administrator, published his 1867 novel Miss Ravenal’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty — which is perhaps the only significant novel about the Civil War written by an actual combatant — he sought, among other things, to champion a view that the “victory of the North is at bottom the triumph of laboring men living by their own industry, over non-laboring men who wanted to live by the industry of others.”

Steeped in the free labor ideology of the North, De Forest’s novel spliced a love story onto a realist account of the war in a way that reflected even as it sought to suppress tensions within the idea of free labor that had come to mark the difference between North and South.

In finally uniting the book’s hero Captain Edward Colburne of the Union army with erstwhile Southern sympathizer, Miss Lillie Ravenal, whom he has loved from the beginning of the novel, De Forest reveals that his view of the ideal free laborer was less the “propertyless proletarian” whose “freedom derived not from the ownership of productive property but from the unfettered sale of . . . labor power — itself a commodity — in a competitive market” than the “independent proprietor,” who had long been identified as being independent enough to secure the freedom of thought and action necessary for responsible citizenship.

We can see the inadequacy of wage labor in Colburne’s assessment of his economic situation after the war. Here we learn that “his salary as captain” had enabled him “to lay up next to nothing,” and that rising gold prices had diminished “the cash value” of what salary he did earn.

These dire prospects, however, do not turn out to be ultimately damning. Trained as a lawyer and in possession of a small inheritance from his dead father, Colburne, by partnering with a colleague, is able in short order to find himself “in possession of a promising if not an opulent business” and is ready to assume his role as head of household with the widowed Lillie Ravenal as his wife and her son as his stepson.

As the novel moves toward a full elaboration of its vision of free labor, it also leaves by the wayside the attempt by Lillie’s father, Dr Ravenal, to reconstruct black labor. Despite being born in South Carolina and having resided in New Orleans for twenty years, Dr Ravenal is a staunch Union man. At a moment when it appears that the Union forces have secured the area around New Orleans, Dr Ravenal determines to demonstrate the superiority of free labor to slave labor by eagerly taking charge of a plantation leased to him by the federal government. His responsibility, as he sees it, is not only economic, but also ideological and pedagogical. To be successful he must “produce not only a crop of corn and potatoes, but a race of intelligent, industrious and virtuous laborers.”

So, with lectures to the ex-slaves about the virtue of labor, sobriety, and the like, Dr Ravenal sets out to put black labor to work for wages. A Confederate counterattack cuts short his “grand experiment of freedman’s labor,” but not before the novel has had time enough to make clear its view that while reconstructing black labor may ultimately succeed, the effort will take time because the habits and attitudes ingrained by a history of enslavement will not disappear overnight.

Contrasting the realities of the South as he sees it to the “pure fiction” of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Dr Ravenal asserts, “There never was such a slave, and there never will be. A man educated under the degrading influences of bondage must always have some taint of uncommon grossness and lowness.” De Forest reiterated this vision in his reflections on his experience with Reconstruction in South Carolina, observing that “the Negro’s acquisition of property, and of those qualities which command the industry of others, will be slow. What better could be expected of a serf so lately manumitted?”

Undergirding De Forest’s vision of black freedmen gradually acquiring the skills and habits necessary to become prosperous cooperative laborers is what Eric Foner terms free labor’s belief that “a harmony of interests” defined the relation of capital to labor. The conditions necessary for capital to profit from its outlays were deemed to be those that were most conducive to the flourishing of labor. Class conflict could be imagined only in terms of deficiencies of character among the uncooperative.

Thus, despite their sympathies for the freedmen, black and white elites in the North generally embraced a view of the recently emancipated as a population in need of tutelage and leadership rather than as peers who had the capacity to present their own visions of social and economic life.

Black novelist, former abolitionist, and temperance advocate Frances E. W. Harper begins her 1892 novel, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, with depictions of illiterate and semi-literate black slaves debating among themselves the best course of action to take in response to the approaching Union army.

However, by the later chapters of that novel, as she seeks to validate genteel black leadership, a less flattering view of freed people emerges. In one instance Harper has one of her exemplary black characters respond to a claim in the newspaper that “colored women were becoming unfit to be servants for white people,” by concluding “that if they are not fit to be servants for white people, they are unfit to be mothers to their own children.”

This character’s readiness to interpret the uncooperativeness of black domestics as indication of debility is of a piece with the novel’s larger attempt to present black labor as educable and not rebellious. As we learn from another of the novel’s admirable characters, “the Negro is not plotting in beer-salons against the peace and order of society. His fingers are not dripping with dynamite, neither is he spitting upon your flag, nor flaunting the red banner of anarchy in your face.”

These sentiments were echoed by black social reformer, Anna Julia Cooper, in her landmark 1892 work of cultural commentary, A Voice From the South, which famously asserted that it would only be when the black woman was able to enter into American society on terms of equality that true social justice would be achieved. While on Cooper’s account genteel black women should expect acceptance as full equals, laboring blacks were to be prized for racial qualities that guaranteed their capacity as tractable workers.

Cooper writes that the Negro’s “Instinct for law and order, his inborn respect for authority, his inaptitude for rioting and anarchy, his gentleness and cheerfulness as a laborer, and his deep-rooted faith in God will prove indispensable and invaluable elements in a nation menaced as America is by anarchy, socialism, communism, and skepticism poured in with all the jail birds from the continents of Europe and Asia.”

To be sure black workers were not often met with open arms by their white counterparts. And it was not always the case that black novelists assumed innate antagonism between black and white laborers. J. McHenry Jones’s 1896 novel, Hearts of Gold, depicts Welsh miners in a Southern town who, moved by their sense that convict labor “degraded” labor generally and by “a deep-seated hatred . . . against systematic cruelty,” harbor a black runaway from a convict labor camp and then march en masse to destroy the camp and liberate its inmates.

Nonetheless, the representational tendency to align black Southern labor with the interests of their employers also reflected the continued commitment of black elites to the idea “that a community of equal men could be created by allying labor (blacks) and capital to produce material progress and enlightenment,” rather than by allying black laborers with their white counterparts. Instead of building the political power of labor, they called for building the integrity and esteem of the black race.

But whether these representations of black and white labor were disparaging or laudatory, what connected them was that they were, in some way or another, a response to the rise of the Southern Alliance in the 1880s, which was followed by the emergence of the Populist Party in the 1890s.

More to the point, according to Judith Stein, the Southern Alliance was paralleled by and helped fuel the Colored Farmers Alliance, which grew to encompass more than a million black farmers by the early 1890s. While in many cases the political organization of black farm laborers strengthened the hand of black political elites in seeking concessions from white industrialists and landowners, the efficacy of these alliances also challenged the ability of these elites to set the terms and goals of black political activity.

Black elites had sought to assure whites in both the South and the North that black political participation was consistent with the idea of rule by the “best” men of society. In principle then, if not always in fact, the stance of black political elites placed them at odds with the idea that relatively uneducated laborers could wield political power effectively. Thus, in novel after novel produced by the black political class, writers inserted scenes where unschooled black laborers pleaded for the leadership and guidance of their black genteel betters.

Of course, the most egregious disparager of interracial labor alliances against capital was Booker T. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Indeed, historian Michael Rudolph West has credited Washington with inventing “race relations.” Washington’s 1901 autobiography, Up From Slavery, attributed Southern labor unrest to the interference of “professional labour agitators” who had their eyes on the savings of thrifty workers and goaded them into going out on strikes that would leave them “worse off at the end.”

Washington’s rise as a political force in the South coincided with the rise of Populism. The ability of Populists to mount successful political challenges to Southern Democrats depended on the votes of black Alliance members.

It was their awareness of this fact that drove white industrialists and planters in the 1890s to secure the dominance of the Democratic Party by pursuing across-the-board disfranchisement of blacks as well as many poor whites. Jim Crow America was the result of a successful counterrevolution against an interracial labor threat — a counterrevolution aided and abetted by the rise of Bookerism and the Tuskegee Machine.

What Tuskegee represented as an institution, and what Up From Slavery testified to as a program, was the idea that the problem of the South was not primarily a problem of who held political power, but rather one of determining how best to incorporate a despised caste into the social and economic fabric of the nation. In the place of political transformation Washington offered up race relations, with Tuskegee positioned to provide an army of “trained men and women to confront the militancy of an industrial proletariat.”

Viewed against the rise of Populism one can see that the Civil War, by granting blacks political rights, set the stage for what would become one of the most profound challenges to capital in the history of the United States. That the Populist challenge was defeated does not diminish its significance. And given that it was only after the defeat of Populism that disfranchisement and Jim Crow were able to succeed suggests the potential instructiveness of that history for the present moment, a history that does not attest simply to the periodic reemergence of white supremacy across time as Alexander and so many others have alleged.

Rather, if racialized forms of exclusion tend to rise in the wake of successful efforts by industrial and financial interests to undermine the political power of labor, to make our primary task that of addressing “racial divisions and resentments,” as Alexander calls for, risks giving pride of place to a new era of race relations, and not the broader vision of social justice that she describes at the end of The New Jim Crow.

Then, as now, the most reliable path to a progressive politics that produces true justice and human rights is that which begins with building the political power of workers. It is this proposition that has often made elite opponents of white supremacy — both black and white — deeply uncomfortable.

Kenneth W. Warren is a professor of English at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is What Was African American Literature?

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The Cold Cases of the Jim Crow Era

The New York Times  August 28, 2015
At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

At the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. Credit Eli Reed/Magnum Photo

In March 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter from a desperate mother. Her son, who was black, had been killed two years earlier, his body pulled from a river near Pickens, Miss.

“I am sending a contract in regards to the lynching of my son Willie Jack Heggard,” wrote Jane Heggard. “I have tried every way to have a trial, but no lawyer will accept the case, because a white man killed an innocent man.”

Despite her plea, it is unlikely we will ever know who killed Ms. Heggard’s son. Roosevelt’s assistant attorney general said it was up to the state of Mississippi, which apparently failed to investigate the crime. Like the thousands of Latin American “desaparecidos” who were terrorized in the 1970s and ’80s, Willie Jack Heggard is among America’s “disappeared,” one of hundreds of black Americans who were victims of racial violence from 1930 to 1960.

Our opportunity to capture their stories — and an important part of our nation’s history — is quickly vanishing as memories fade, witnesses die and evidence disappears. Time is running out to achieve some measure of justice.

For the past seven years, we have traveled throughout the South to document these cold cases. Many of the documents — sworn statements, court transcripts and coroners’ reports — are stored in dusty courthouses, threatened by fires, floods and rodents. Compared with the relatively robust archive on lynchings between 1882 and 1930, researchers have not fully explored the social and political costs of racial violence during the 30 years before 1960.

In 2008, Congress acknowledged this gap in our historical knowledge and passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the 14-year-old boy who was pulled from his bed in Mississippi on Aug. 28, 1955, tortured and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. His case has not been fully resolved, although his killers confessed to a magazine in exchange for $4,000. The Emmett Till act authorizes the Department of Justice to coordinate with local authorities and investigate racially motivated homicides that occurred before 1970.

The problem is, the act has not been adequately funded, and its narrow focus on viable prosecutions limits its efficacy. Many homicides can no longer be prosecuted. In some cases, the government has limited federal jurisdiction. In others, witnesses and perpetrators have died. This year, the Department of Justice reported that it had completed just 105 investigations and three prosecutions over the past several years.

Clearly, the federal government needs to expand the act’s focus. Even if they are largely symbolic, prosecutions themselves are a form of truth telling, and require local governments who often ignored or sanctioned the killings to help re-examine this history.

In addition, prosecutions should be considered alongside remedies like truth commissions, restitution and official apologies which acknowledge that these murders were part of a pattern of intimidation against entire communities, intended to stifle full citizenship. Finally, along with better funding for the Till act, President Obama and Congress should establish an initiative to collect oral histories from this period.

It wouldn’t be the first time the federal government has undertaken a large oral history project. From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project conducted over 2,300 interviews with elderly former slaves. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 funded oral histories and gave reparations to Japanese-Americans sent to internment camps during World War II. In 2000, Congress created the Veterans History Project so Americans could “better understand the realities of war.”

And several states — including North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida — have already sponsored commissions on race riots before 1930 that attempted to assess the long-term impact of the murders, looting, arson and other property damage that ruined thriving African-American communities. Some recommended monetary reparations, economic redevelopment or commemorative monuments. Not all of the solutions were implemented, but the work itself was a significant step forward.

Some countries are confronting shameful episodes in their histories that had been intentionally ignored. In 2007, Spain passed the Law of Historical Memory to recognize those who suffered under Franco, which has supported the exhumation of graves from that era. In June, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the decades-long abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools “cultural genocide.”

A full accounting of the past may evoke shame, pain and impulses to remember and forget. But an acknowledgment that this legacy of violence still haunts African-American communities may foster more productive conversations and help generate trust in our legal system.

Emmett Till, who was killed 60 years ago today, is a victim whose story we know. His name endures because his mother “wanted the world to see what they did.” His memory beckons us to learn the fate of hundreds of others, like Willie Jack Heggard. We must find America’s disappeared, learn their stories and allow them to live in our history.

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America’s Long History of Racial Fear

By

We’re History  June 24, 2015
An Amalgamation Waltz

An Amalgamation Waltz. Edward Williams Clay, 1839 (Photo: American Antiquarian Society)

Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.

At the heart of Wednesday’s violence is America’s history of chattel slavery, a labor system built on violence, in which all whites were effectively authorized to do violence to African Americans in order to keep them at work and prevent them from challenging their enslavement. But this brutal system also produced rebellions. Whites – even those who never owned a slave – lived with the fear that that racial order might be turned upside down, destroying everything that they held dear. In other words, whites attributed to blacks the same desire for domination that they themselves were exercising. It is no accident that the alleged shooter is reported to have said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

The history of chattel slavery, upended in the Civil War, was followed by the history of Reconstruction, a moment during which America’s racial hierarchy was unsettled, and black people were able to claim a measure of political and civil equality. But the moment was a brief one. White conservatives all over the South, abetted by many white northerners, denounced the new interracial Southern governments as exactly the “world turned upside down” that they had feared during slavery. They overthrew those governments by force and fraud and set about reconstructing white supremacy as best they could without the law of slavery as a foundation.

The Reconstruction years thus gave way to another history: the continuing struggle by white supremacist activists to create and enforce Jim Crow’s exclusion, segregation, and lynching. This struggle took a lot of work, and it required that whites remain intensely fearful of blacks. One of the greatest victories of white supremacy in this era was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women. Despite overwhelming evidence that this claim was unfounded (especially as revealed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett), the fantasy that predatory black men routinely victimized white women became the justification for lynching. Those fears may have run deepest in the South, where the great majority of the black population resided well into the twentieth century, but they found a home in the North and West as well.

As Jim Crow began to crack beneath the blows of the post-WWII black freedom movement, politicians drew on that history to sustain white racial domination. Scare campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement promised that civil and political equality would unleash black men’s alleged sexual ambitions and, once again, overturn a well-established racial hierarchy. The power and persuasiveness of those arguments helped explain the residential segregation and redlining across the North that lies at the heart of so many of today’s inequities. It lay behind the differential sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine and undergirded the fearful discussion of “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still used to justify the overwhelmingly disproportionate police scrutiny, arrest, and conviction and incarceration of African Americans.

America’s long racial history of imagining blacks as fearsome, criminal, and bent on political and sexual domination has never gone away. This is not because the fantasy is real, but because it has played such a powerful role for hundreds of years. No wonder that it is so readily wielded as a weapon, whether through cynicism, ignorance, or ruthlessness. No wonder that its murderous version of history was so easy for Dylann Roof to find and embrace.

Dylan Roof’s murderous night is not simply a South Carolina tragedy. It is an expression and a consequence of American history – a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.

About the Author

Stephen Kantrowitz

Stephen Kantrowitz is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of several books, including Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy.

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EJI

EJI’S NEW LYNCHING REPORT DOCUMENTS AN ERA OF RACIAL TERRORISM

Equal Justice Initiative   February 10, 2015

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) today released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documents EJI’s multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states during the period between Reconstruction and World War II. EJI researchers documented 3959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia between 1877 and 1950 – at least 700 more lynchings of black people in these states than previously reported in the most comprehensive work done on lynching to date.

Lynching in America makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation. Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials. This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few marginalized vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person. People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity. Not a single white person was convicted of murder for lynching a black person in America during this period.

The report explores the ways in which lynching profoundly impacted race relations in this country and shaped the contemporary geographic, political, social, and economic conditions of African Americans. Most importantly, lynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

No prominent public memorial or monument commemorates the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in America. Lynching in America argues that is a powerful statement about our failure to value the black lives lost in this brutal campaign of racial violence. Research on mass violence, trauma, and transitional justice underscores the urgent need to engage in public conversations about racial history that begin a process of truth and reconciliation in this country.

“We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it,” said EJI Director Bryan Stevenson. “The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”

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Black Southern Voters, Poised to Play a Historic Role

Nate Cohn

The New York Times   July 18, 2014

Southern black voters don’t usually play a decisive role in national elections. They were systematically disenfranchised for 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Since the days of Jim Crow, a fairly unified white Southern vote has often determined the outcome of elections.

This November could be different. Nearly five decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, black voters in the South are poised to play a pivotal role in this year’s midterm elections. If Democrats win the South and hold the Senate, they will do so because of Southern black voters.

The timing — 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 49 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act — is not entirely coincidental. The trends increasing the clout of black voters reflect a complete cycle of generational replacement in the post-Jim Crow era. White voters who came of age as loyal Democrats have largely died off, while the vast majority of black voters have been able to vote for their entire adult lives — and many have developed the habit of doing so.

This year’s closest contests include North CarolinaLouisiana and Georgia. Black voters will most likely represent more than half of all Democratic voters in Louisiana and Georgia, and nearly half in North Carolina. Arkansas, another state with a large black population, is also among the competitive states.

Southern black voters have already made their mark on this year’s midterm elections. Last month, Senator Thad Cochran defeated a Tea Party challenger with the help of a surge in black turnout in a Republican run-off in Mississippi.

Black voters in the South have played an important role in a handful of federal elections since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency with the help of black voters in the Deep South. Democrats also won many competitive Senate seats in the South in 1998. Black voters have even played a decisive role in some states that will be crucial this November: They represented about half of Senator Mary Landrieu’s supporters in Louisiana 2002 and 2008; and in North Carolina in 2008, nearly half of President Obama’s supporters were black.

But there has not been a year since Reconstruction when a party has depended so completely on black voters, in so many Southern states, in such a close national contest. President Carter, for instance, won by a comfortable margin in most of Dixie, with strong support among white voters. In 1998, Senate control was not at stake, and Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina was icing on the cake.

If Democrats win this November, black voters will probably represent a larger share of the winning party’s supporters in important states than at any time since Reconstruction. Their influence is not just a product of the Senate map. It also reflects the collapse in Southern white support for Democrats, an increase in black turnout and the reversal of a century-long trend of blackoutmigration from the South.

State-level Democrats performed fairly well among Southern white voters in the decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A majority of white voters were still self-identified Democrats who formed their partisan allegiances when white supremacist Democrats ruled Dixie. As a result, Southern Democrats did not usually depend on black voters, who generally turned out at lower rates than white voters.

That era has come to an end. Today, the overwhelming majority of voters, white and black alike, reached voting age after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Southern politics are now defined by the post-Civil Rights era: The old generation of Southern white Democrats has almost entirely departed the electorate, leaving white voters overwhelmingly Republican. Mr. Obama won about 15 percent of white voters in the Deep South in 2012.

Democrats lamented low black turnout for decades, but Southern black turnout today rivals or occasionally exceeds that of white voters. That’s in part because black voters, for the first time, have largely been eligible to vote since they turned 18. They have therefore had as many opportunities as their white counterparts to be targeted by campaigns, mobilized by interest groups or motivated by political causes.

Mr. Obama is part of the reason for higher black turnout, which surpassed white turnout nationally in the 2012 presidential election, according to the census. But black turnout had been increasing steadily, even before Mr. Obama sought the presidency. In 1998, unexpectedly high black turnout allowed Democrats to win a handful of contests in the Deep South; in 2002, Ms. Landrieu won a Senate runoff with a surge in black turnout.

The Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act unleashed a wave of new laws with a disparate impact on black voters, including cuts in early voting and photo-identification requirements.

These laws will disenfranchise an unknown number of eligible voters, but probably not so many as to have a big effect on election results. In Georgia, where a voter ID law has been in place since 2007, the black turnout rate has increased to nearly match that of whites.

The post-Jim Crow era also led to the end and eventual reversal of the Great Migration, the exodus of blacks from the South to escape racist laws and seek better economic opportunities. The South was home to about 90 percent of the nation’s African-Americans until the beginning of the 20th century. By 1970, 53 percent of blacks lived there.

This trend reversed in the decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, 57 percent of black Americans live in the South; more than one million black Southerners today were born in the Northeast.

Nowhere has the remigration done more to improve Democratic chances than in Georgia, where Democrats have a chance to win an open Senate seat this November. Since 2000, as the black population has risen, the share of registered voters who are white has dropped to 59 percent, from 72 percent.

The Democratic nominee in Georgia is Michelle Nunn, a candidate symbolic of generational change in her own right. She is the daughter of Sam Nunn, a conservative Democratic former senator from rural, downstate Georgia who was first elected in 1972. If Ms. Nunn wins this November, it will be with only a handful of the rural, Southern white voters who adored her father.

The state’s growing black population will give her a chance to win with less than one-third of the white vote, a tally that would have ensured defeat for Democrats just a few years ago. Her pathway to victory would be unrecognizable to her father, who never won re-election with less than 80 percent of the vote.

 

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Who Was Jim Crow?

HNN Staff   October 31, 2011

Cover to an early edition of "Jump Jim Crow" sheet music (c 1832) -- Wikipedia -

Cover to an early edition of “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music (c 1832) — Wikipedia


Jim Crow laws, as most Americans should (hopefully) know, were the racist segregation laws which cemented white supremacy over African Americans throughout the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the civil rights movement’s victories in the mid-1960s.

But who the heck was Jim Crow, and why did his name grace some of the most odious laws in American history?

Jim Crow was not actually a person—the name comes from an 1828 show by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.  Rice, in a proto-minstrel act, would put on blackface and sing “Jump Jim Crow,” with the refrain:

Wheel about, an’ turn about, an’ do jis so;
Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892).


 

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892). – See more at: http://hnn.us/article/142719#sthash.iswHNd5D.dpuf

Jim Crow laws, as most Americans should (hopefully) know, were the racist segregation laws which cemented white supremacy over African Americans throughout the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the civil rights movement’s victories in the mid-1960s.

But who the heck was Jim Crow, and why did his name grace some of the most odious laws in American history?

Jim Crow was not actually a person—the name comes from an 1828 show by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.  Rice, in a proto-minstrel act, would put on blackface and sing “Jump Jim Crow,” with the refrain:

Wheel about, an’ turn about, an’ do jis so;
Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892).

– See more at: http://hnn.us/article/142719#sthash.iswHNd5D.dpuf

Cover to an early edition of “Jump Jim Crow” sheet music (c 1832) — Wikipedia

Jim Crow laws, as most Americans should (hopefully) know, were the racist segregation laws which cemented white supremacy over African Americans throughout the United States from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 to the civil rights movement’s victories in the mid-1960s.

But who the heck was Jim Crow, and why did his name grace some of the most odious laws in American history?

Jim Crow was not actually a person—the name comes from an 1828 show by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.  Rice, in a proto-minstrel act, would put on blackface and sing “Jump Jim Crow,” with the refrain:

Wheel about, an’ turn about, an’ do jis so;
Eb’ry time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow.

The song was quite popular in the early half of the 1800s, and “Jim Crow” quickly became a disparaging term for blacks, but it wasn’t until toward the end of the century that the name was applied to the various post-Reconstruction “black codes” in the South (the New York Times referred to Louisiana’s “‘Jim Crow’ Law” as early as 1892).

– See more at: http://hnn.us/article/142719#sthash.iswHNd5D.dpuf

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The Case for Reparations: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Reckoning With U.S. Slavery & Institutional Racism

Democracy Now    May 29, 2014

An explosive new cover story in the June issue of The Atlantic magazine by the famed essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates has rekindled a national discussion on reparations for American slavery and institutional racism. Coates explores how slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and federally backed housing policy systematically robbed African Americans of their possessions and prevented them from accruing inter-generational wealth. Much of the essay focuses on predatory lending schemes that bilked potential African-American homeowners, concluding: “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” Click here to watch Part 2 of this interview.”:http://www.democracynow.org/2014/5/30/part_2_ta_nehisi_coateson

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “The case for reparations. 250 years of slavery. Nine years of Jim Crow. 60 years of separate but equal. 35 years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” So begins an explosive new cover story in the June issue of the Atlantic magazine by the famed essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates. The article is being credited for rekindling a national discussion on reparations for American slavery and institutional racism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates exposes how slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and federally backed housing policy systematically robbed African Americans of their possessions and prevented them from accruing intergenerational wealth. Much of the piece focuses on predatory lending schemes that built potential African-American homeowners. This is a video that The Atlantic released a preview its new cover story, “The Case for Reparations.”

*BILLY LAMAR BROOKS SR.: This area here represents the poorest of the poor in the city of Chicago.

MATTIE LEWIS: I’ve always wanted to own my own house, because I work for white people when I was in the South, and they had beautiful homes and I always said, one day I was going to have me one.

JACK MACNAMARA: White folks created the ghetto. It drives me crazy today even that we don’t admit that. This is the best example I can think of the institutional racism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To talk about “The Case for Reparations,” we’re joined now by Ta-Nehisi Coates here in New York City. Welcome to Democracy Now! You start your article with one particular figure, Clyde Ross. Tell us his story and why you decided to begin with him.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mr. Ross is really just emblematic of much of what has happened to African-Americans across the 20th century, and I emphasize 20th century. Mr. Ross was born in the Delta region of Mississippi. His family was not particularly poor, they actually quite prominent farmers. They had their land and virtually all of their possessions taken from them through a scheme around allegedly back taxes and were reduced to sharecropping. In the sharecropping system, there was no sort of assurances over what they might get versus what they actually picked. When I first met Mr. Ross, the first thing he said to me was he left Mississippi for Chicago because he was seeking the protection of the law. I didn’t quite understand what he meant by that. But, as he explained it to me, he said, listen, there were no black judges, no black prosecutors, no black police — basically, we had no law. We were outlaws and people could take from us whatever they wanted. That was very much his early life. He went to Chicago thinking things would be a little different. On the surface, they were. He managed to get a job, got married, had a decent life. He was basically looking for that one more emblem of the American middle class in the Eisenhower years, and that was the possession of a home. Unfortunately, due to government policy, Mr. Ross at that time, like most African-Americans, was unable to secure a loan due to policies or red-lining and deciding who deserved the loans and who doesn’t. There was a broad, broad consensus that African-Americans, for no other reason besides blatant racism, could not be responsible homeowners. Mr. Ross, as happens when people are pushed out of the legitimate loan market ended up in the illegitimate loan market and got caught up in the system of contract buying, which is essentially just a particularly onerous rent to own scheme for people looking to buy houses. Ended up purchasing a house, I believe at $27,000 he paid for it. The person who sold it to him had bought the house only six months before for $12,000. Mr. Ross later became an activist, helped formed the Contract Buyers League, and just fought on behalf of African American home owner on the west side of Chicago. I should add that it is estimated during this period that 85% of African-Americans looking to buy homes in Chicago bought through contract lending.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let’s hear Clyde Ross and his onward speaking a in 1969 on behalf of the Contract Buyers League a coalition of black homeowners on Chicago’s South and West Sides from all of whom had been locked into the the same system of predatory lending.

CLYDE ROSS: They have cheated us out of more than money. We have been cheated out of the right to be human beings in a society. We have been cheated out of buying homes at a decent price. Now it’s time now, we got a chance. The Contract Buyers League has presented a chance for these people in this area to move out of this crippled society, to move up. Stand on your own two feet. Be human beings, fight for what you know is right. Fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, can you talk about this example and others in this remarkable piece and how you then talk about the bill for reparations that has been introduced by John Conyers year after year in the house, and what reparations would actually look like?

TA-NEHISI COATES: What I try to establish in this piece is that there is a conventional way of talking about the relationship in America between the African-American community and the white community, and it is one that we are very comfortable with. I call it basically the lunch table view of the problem with racism in America is that black people want to sit at one table and white people want to sit at another lunch table. If we could just get black and white people to like each other, love each other, everything would be solved. In fact, even these terms that we’re using are inventions, and they’re inventions of racism. If you trace back the history back to 1619, a better way of describing the relationship between black and white people is one of plunder, the constant stealing, the taking from black people that extends from slavery up through Jim Crow policy. Slavery is obviously the stealing of people’s labor. In some cases the outright theft of people’s children, and the vending of people’s children, the taking of the black body for whatever profit you can wring from it, up through the Jim Crow South where you have a system of debt peonage, sharecropping — which really isn’t much different minus the actual selling of children you steal, exploiting labor and taking as much as you can from it. Into a system when you think about something like separate but equal. In the Civil Rights Movement, we traditionally picture colored only water fountains, white only restrooms. The thing people have to remember, if you take a state like Mississippi or anywhere in the deep South where you have a public university system, black people are paying into that. Black people are pledging their fealty to the state and yet, they aren’t getting the same return. This is theft. This is systemized. When we try to talk about the practicality of it, I spent 16,000 words almost just trying to actually make the case. At the end, what I come to is that the actionable thing right now is to support Representative John Conyers’ Bill H.R.40 for a study of what slavery has actually done, what the legacy of slavery has actually done to black people and what are remedies we might come up with. I did that not so much to dodge the question, but because I think to actually even sketch out what this might be would take another 16,000 words. We have to calculate what slavery was. We have to calculate what Jim Crow was. We have to calculate what we lost in terms of redlining and come to some sort of ostensible number and figure out whether we can actually pay it back. And if we can’t, what we might do in lieu of that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you mentioned that the systemic plunder that occurred, I mean, this is not ancient history.

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, no.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the most recent economic crisis in the country, there was this enormous reduction in the wealth of African-Americans in the country as a result of the housing crisis, yet the narrative portrays it as the housing crisis was caused — the conservative narrative is — by affirmative action policies of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to make it easier for African-Americans with low credit to get loans. Talk about that and this enormous wealth loss that occurred recently.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, the great sociologist Douglas Massey has a very interesting paper out specifically about the foreclosure crisis as it should be rightly called that happened very, very recently. One of the things he demonstrates in the paper is the thing that made this possible, segregation was a driver of this. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. The African-American community is the most segregated community in the country, and what you have in that community is a population of people who have been traditionally cut off from wealth building opportunities. So, anxious to get wealth-building opportunities. If you are a banker and you are looking sell a scheme to somebody and rip somebody off, well there your marks are, right there, right in the same place. That’s essentially what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, I wanted to go to this issue of reparations and the examples you have seen, for example, after the Holocaust, Germany and the Jews. Can you talk about how those reparations took place?

TA-NEHISI COATES: It is very, very interesting. One of the reasons why I included that history, because as we know, reparations for African-Americans has all sorts of practical problems that we would have to deal with and fight about. I wanted to just demonstrate that even in the case of reparations to Israel, the one that’s most cited, this was not a sure thing. One thing that people often say about African-American reparations is, well, oh you’re just talking about savory, that was so long ago, as though if we were talking about a more proximate or more present case it would be much easier. But, in fact, the fact it was so close made it really, really hard for people, made it hard for some Israelis who did not want to feel like they were taking a buck off of folks’ mothers or brothers or sisters or grandmas who had just been killed. In Germany in fact, if we look at the public opinion surveys at the time, they were no more — Germans in the popular sense — were no more apt to take responsibility today than Americans are for slavery. So, it was a very, very difficult piece. What’s interesting and I think one of the lessons that can be learned from it, however, is the way it was structured. In fact, Germany did not just cut a check to Israel. What they actually did was they gave them vouchers. Those vouchers that were worth a certain amount of money, those vouchers had to be used with German companies. So, essentially, what they structured was a stimulus for West Germany while giving reparations to Israel at the same time. It gives us some clue that some sort of creative solutions we might have in the African-American community.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One of the issues you also raise is that this reparations demand is not new in American history. You talk about Belinda Royall who in 1783 had been a slave for 50 years, became a freed woman. She petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right, right, and I think people think of this as something that just sort of came up, you know 150 years — Black people — reparations is basically as old as this country is, and it’s not just, as you mention, Belinda Royall, people like that, but, it is also white people who understood at the time some great injury had been done. Many of the quaker meetings for instance — basically, they would excommunicate people who didn’t just free their slaves, but actually gave them something, you know, paid them reparations in return. We have the great quote from Timothy Dwight who was the president of Yale who said, to liberate these folks, to free these folks and to give them nothing would be to entail a curse upon them. Effectively, that is actually what happened upon African American and really, I would argue, upon the country at large. Many, many people of the Revolutionary generation, the generation that fought in the Revolutionary War, understood that slavery was somehow in contradiction to what America was saying it was. Many of those folks also at the very least gave land to African-Americans when they were liberated. Some of them educated them. But they understood to just cut somebody out into the wild, which is basically what happened to black people, would not be a good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Ta-Nehisi Coates, we want to thank you very much for being with us. We’re going to do part two right after the show and we will post it online at democracynow.org. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent of The Atlantic where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He has just written a cover story called “The Case for Reparations.” Ta-Nehisi Coates is also the author of the memoir “The Beautiful Struggle

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The Ambivalent Legacy of Brown v. Board

Jelani Cobb 

The New Yorker  May 16, 2014

brown-board-legacy.jpg

Brown v. Board plaintiffs, Topeka, Kansas, 1953. Photograph by Carl Iwasaki/Time Life Pictures/Getty.

In March of 1863, a fugitive slave named Gordon found his way to the Union Army lines in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Exhausted from his efforts to escape his slaveholders and their dogs, he showed up in tattered rags. When doctors examined him, they saw that his back was marred by a lattice of keloid scars, evidence of the severe whippings he’d endured in bondage. He was photographed, and the image of this former slave, stripped to the waist, with lash marks inscribed on his skin like a bas-relief, was widely distributed in the North—as indisputable evidence of the evil that had brought the nation to the brink of self-destruction. Unlike the authors of slave narratives, Gordon’s ruined flesh could not be accused of hyperbole.

Gordon enlisted in the Union Army, and the image of his lacerated back came to represent an imperative in future struggles for racial equality. Merely highlighting the existence of injustice was insufficient; you had to show the brutal consequences of that injustice, as vividly as possible.

This kind of scar-bearing was an integral part of the twentieth-century movement to uproot Jim Crow, which reached its zenith sixty years ago this Saturday, with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Thurgood Marshall’s assault on the edifice of segregation had been confounded by the question of whether the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited racial segregation. The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, had held that a putatively benign social separation could coexist with the amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. The majority opinion, in fact, went so far as to argue that efforts to overturn segregation had been motivated by blacks’ misperceptions of the practice:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

To combat the notion that the evils of segregation were so much hyperbole, Marshall and the other lawyers at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund called upon the psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose famous “doll tests” had demonstrated that racism was damaging to the minds of black children. Beginning in 1939, the Clarks had conducted experiments showing that, when presented with two dolls identical in every way except color, black children consistently attributed favorable characteristics like beauty and intelligence to the white dolls, while reserving their most negative assessments for the dolls they most resembled. The Clarks’ work demonstrated that scars need not be visible in order to be indelible, and their data helped to bolster Marshall’s contention that racial separation violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

The nascent civil-rights movement drew its moral authority, in some measure, from the image of African-Americans who were psychologically “damaged” by the legacy of slavery and the ongoing travesty of segregation. But those arguments, about the extent to which racism had wounded the African-American mind, have had a far more complicated legacy than the celebration of Brown would suggest. As the historian Daryl Michael Scott argues in his 1997 book, “Contempt and Pity”:

Liberals used damage imagery to play upon the sympathies of the white middle class. Oppression was wrong, they suggested, because it damaged personalities and changes had to be made to promote the well-being of African Americans. Rather than standing on the ideals of the American creed and making reparations for the nation’s failure to live up to the separate but equal doctrine set forth in Plessy v. Ferguson, liberals capitulated to the historic tendency of posing blacks as objects of pity.

Six decades after the Supreme Court struck down de-jure segregation, vast swaths of the American education system remain separated by race—indeed, there has been a trend toward resegregation in many areas, particularly in the South. But the most telling indicator of the ambiguous legacy of Brown may be the way we perceive the kinds of arguments that led to the decision.

In 1986, the anthropologist John Ogbu conducted a study of African-American academic performance, and he concluded that many black students viewed high educational achievement as a form of “acting white.” Ogbu’s conclusions were widely disputed by other researchers, yet the term—succinct in its oversimplification—leapt from scholarly journals into public debates about race. The Clarks’ doll tests were seen as an indictment of white racism, but the notion of “acting white”—fundamentally rooted in a similar tendency to ascribe virtue to whiteness—was nonetheless deployed as a means of pointing toward African-Americans’ own self-defeating behavior.

This rhetoric was not confined to white conservatives. In 2004, at a dinner sponsored by the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their victory in the Brown case, Bill Cosby departed from his notes and launched into a tirade against the shortcomings of impoverished African-Americans. Speaking of Kenneth Clark, by then an elderly widower, Cosby said:

Kenneth Clark, somewhere in his home in upstate New York … just looking ahead. Thank God, he doesn’t know what’s going on, thank God. But these people, the ones up here in the balcony fought so hard. Looking at the incarcerated, these are not political criminals. These are people going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake! Then we all run out and are outraged, “The cops shouldn’t have shot him.” What the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?

Cosby’s remarks were applauded by many on the right, as well as by more than a few African-Americans. What was once considered “damage” had been transformed—by the passage of a few decades and by the insistence that racism was behind us now—into “pathology.” Cosby’s intemperate rhetoric tapped into a vein of frustration, seldom voiced in public, that, a half century beyond the most crucial judicial decision of the civil-rights era, the problems once attributed to legal segregation managed to persist. Despite Cosby’s invective, it was never clear where that frustration should be attributed. There are no metrics for how quickly a group should recover from legally enforced subordination, and no statistical rendering of ongoing racial inequalities could match the explanatory power of a “Colored Only” sign. If these complexities confounded people like Cosby, who’d actually lived through segregation, there was scant hope that they’d be readily perceived by many people who hadn’t.

Yet some things have remained constant. Alarmingly, versions of the Clarks’ doll test conducted in the past few years still yield results similar to those of the original experiments. In 2011, the sociologist Karolyn Tyson showed that concerns over “acting white” among black students tended to arise not in overwhelmingly black schools but precisely in settings in which black students were underrepresented. And yet, sixty years after Brown, the prevailing idea in these debates remains one that is similar to the argument presented in Plessy: that the major, and perhaps the only, problem with ongoing segregation is the way black people perceive and respond to it.

The United States may not be “post-racial,” as many claimed in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, but it clearly sees itself as post-racism, at least when it comes to explaining the color-coded disparities that still define the lives of millions of its citizens.

Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute for African American Studies at University of Connecticut.

 

 

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Felon disfranchisement preserves slavery’s legacy

By Pippa Holloway

Oxford University Press Blog    April 28, 2014

Nearly six million Americans are prohibited from voting in the United States today due to felony convictions. Six states stand out: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia. These six states disfranchise seven percent of the total adult population – compared to two and a half percent nationwide. African Americans are particularly affected in these states. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia more than one in five African Americans is disfranchised. The other three are not far behind. Not only do individuals lose voting rights when they are incarcerated, on probation, or paroled, a common practice in many states, but some or all ex-felons are barred from voting. All six of these states have non-automatic restoration processes that make it difficult or impossible to have one’s rights restored. Not coincidentally, all of these states maintained a system of racial slavery until the Civil War.

At the other end of the spectrum are northeastern states, mostly those in New England, which put up few obstacles to voting by convicted individuals. Maine and Vermont are the only states in the nation that do not disfranchise anyone for a crime, even individuals who are incarcerated. Among the remaining 48 states, Massachusetts and New Hampshire disfranchise the smallest percentage of convicted individuals. Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania are also far below the national average.

Voters at the Voting Booths. ca. 1945. NAACP Collection, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. - See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/04/felon-disfranchisement-preserves-slaverys-legacy/#sthash.wdlC2De3.dpuf

Voters at the Voting Booths. ca. 1945. NAACP Collection, The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship, Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. – See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/04/felon-disfranchisement-preserves-slaverys-legacy/#sthash.wdlC2De3.dpuf

Generalizations about regional difference are complex should be made cautiously. Although the six states with the highest rates of disfranchisement are all in the South, six other states also impose life-long disfranchisement for some or all felons. Arizona and Nevada have relatively high rates of felon disfranchisement. Midwestern states, particularly Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, have low rates of felon disfranchisement, as does North Dakota. Nonetheless, the Northeast and South stand in stark contrast.

Regional differences in felon disfranchisement today are the result of regionally divergent histories of slavery and criminal justice. New England states had outlawed slavery by 1800. Soon, they also stopped treating convicts like slaves, barring state-administered corporal punishment for criminal offenses in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. Instead, northeastern states embraced an ideology of criminality that emphasized rehabilitation. This attitude toward both slavery and punishment led many citizens and lawmakers in the northeast to oppose disfranchisement of convicts or at least curb the reach of this punishment. In the colonial era, Connecticut limited the courts that could deny convicts the vote. Maine’s 1819 constitutional convention rejected a proposal to disfranchise for crime. Vermont ended the practice in 1832. In other northeastern states proponents of such disfranchisement measures faced strong opposition. For example, Pennsylvania’s 1873 constitutional convention restricted felon disfranchisement to those convicted of election-related crimes; an effort to disfranchise convicts in Maryland in 1864 passed only after a long debate.

In contrast in the nineteenth-century South two groups were permanently cast out of full citizenship: African Americans and convicts. Although the enslavement of African Americans ended in 1865, “infamy” – the legal status of those convicted of serious crimes – was imposed on a growing number of the new black citizens. Accusations of prior crimes were used in the 1866 election as one of the first tools used to deny the vote to former slaves. In the 1870s, nearly every state in the former Confederacy (Texas being the exception) modified its laws to disfranchise for petty theft, a move celebrated by white leaders as a step toward disfranchising African Americans.

The legacy of slavery and segregation in the South is important to this story but so is the different regional trajectory of criminal justice. All southern states except South Carolina and Georgia (states today that still have among the lowest rates of disfranchisement in the South) enacted laws disfranchising for crime between 1812 and 1838, and there is little evidence of dissent or debate over this punishment anywhere in the region. Furthermore, southern states rejected the concept of criminal rehabilitation and focused instead on punishment. After the Civil War “convict lease” systems replicated in many ways the system of slavery for those who fell into it, creating a class of mostly-black individuals who were subject to physical punishment, public abuse, and humiliation, and denied voting rights.

PippaIn the past, as is also true today, individuals with criminal convictions fought long battles to regain their voting rights. Far from being a population that is uninterested in politics, individuals barred from voting have challenged obstacles to re-enfranchisement and overcome tremendous hurdles to have their voting rights restored. Consider the case of Jefferson Ratliff, an African American farmer living in Anson County, North Carolina, who in 1887 paid the court an astounding $14 to have his citizenship rights restored, ten years after his conviction for larceny (including three years’ incarceration) for stealing a hog. In Giles County, Tennessee in 1888 a man named Henry Murray paid $2.70 in court costs in an unsuccessful effort to have his voting rights restored. In other cases, poor and illiterate individual petitioners facing a complicated legal process sought help from friends and neighbors. In Georgia, Lewis Price petitioned Governor William Y. Atkinson in 1895 for a pardon so that he could vote. He explained, “I am a poor ignorant negro and I have no money to pay to the lawyers to work for me. So I have to depend on my friends to do all of my writing.”

The historical record shows that state and local governments have consistently failed, throughout the nation’s history, to enforce these laws in a fair and uniform way. Coordinating voter registration lists with criminal court records and pardon records — difficult in today’s world of information technology — was nearly impossible in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. People who should have been able to vote were often denied the vote due to false allegations of disfranchising offenses; convictions were secured through suspect judicial processes prior to an election for partisan ends; and people who should have been disfranchised often voted. Sometimes these appear to have been honest mistakes made by officials charged with merging complicated statutory and constitutional requirements with voter registration data and court records. In many cases though, other agendas—partisan, racial, personal—seem to have been at work. In short, felon disfranchisement laws have long been subject to error and abuse.

Race both rationalized and motivated laws imposing lifelong disfranchisement for certain criminal acts in the post-Civil War period. Since then a variety of factors have led to the persistent sense, particularly in southern states, that individuals with prior criminal convictions are marked with a disgrace and contamination that is incompatible with full citizenship. Felon disfranchisement today preserves slavery’s racial legacy by producing a class of individuals who are excluded from suffrage, disproportionately impoverished, members of racial and ethnic minorities, and often subject to labor for below-market wages. In these six southern states, the ballot box is just as out of reach for former convicts as it was for enslaved African Americans two centuries ago.

Dr. Pippa Holloway is the author of Living in Infamy: Felon Disfranchisement and the History of American Citizenship, published Oxford University Press in December 2012. She is Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. Contemporary data comes from Christopher Uggen, Sara Shannon, Jeff Manza, “State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010.”

 

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