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Thursday, August 2, 2018

For Every Action There Is An Equal Reaction–The Divisive Nature Of Radical Racial Politics

Many if not most whites in America sympathized with Martin Luther King and the fight for racial equality.  Few could ignore the continued segregation that prohibited the black man from even the smallest measures for economic and social opportunity.  While the South hated King, resented government attempts to intervene in what they considered a states rights issue, and refused to recognize or accept the institutionalized racism that had been part of their lives and history for generations, the North was open to change.  The Civil Rights Act, passed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, was acknowledged by both progressives and moderates as a long-overdue remediation of a two-century old problem.  The country had finally awakened to the ills of slavery and, perhaps more importantly, to the corrosive nature of its aftermath.

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Thomas Jefferson had long realized that the problem with slavery was not only enslavement, but manumission – the freeing of slaves.  What would a white, middle class, European, moderately well educated populace make of still tribal, uneducated, illiterate, and unsocialized slaves in their midst?  They would only act with hostility, resentment, and anger. Jefferson knew that slavery would only end in serious divisions within Virginia especially, but in the nation at large; and he considered many options, especially finding an offshore domicile for freed slaves. 

Before he could act, the marketplace resolved the problem.  Virginia slaveholders saw the value of their slaves drop as the demand for their labor declined.  Formerly rich tobacco soil had been depleted by over-cultivation, there was a surplus of slave labor, and the only way to recoup losses was to sell them to the Lower South which was just beginning cotton production.  Jefferson’s problem was not solved but exacerbated as it simply moved to the Deep South. 

When Emancipation finally came, Americans saw what Jefferson feared.  The Radical Republicans in Congress insisted not only on freedom but full political participation; and the images of former slaves thrust into positions of legislative authority in Southern legislatures were spread widely.  The first radical action had a radical reaction.  Southern grandees, ruined by the Civil War and punished by the North, refused to give in.  Their resistance to Reconstruction increased, and soon de facto slavery in the form of tenant farming and Jim Crow laws was reinstated.

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Lincoln as well knew the perils of punitive action towards the South.  The defeated Southerners were still Americans, he reasoned, and severe punishment rather than reconciliation would hurt the cause of national unity.  Teaching the South a lesson had been accomplished by the Union Army and General Sherman.  Nothing more was required.  Had Lincoln lived, the South would have been treated differently and the course of post-Emancipation history would certainly have been different.

Martin Luther King understood this lesson well and knew that reconciliation through fairness and justice was the only way to solve the persistent problem of segregation and racism.  The solution to the problem could only be found through a concerted bi-racial effort to effect laws and Constitutional right.

Yet after King’s death, like Lincoln’s, a much more radical solution to the problem was proposed.  Black activists of the 60s like Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown, and the Black Panthers contradicted King.  Whitey was the enemy, they said, and nothing would change his attitude towards black people except intimidation and violence.   The days of racial compromise were over.

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Over the next decades the dream of a non-racial society was abandoned.  At best, black radicals insisted, was ironically ‘separate but equal’.  The black man would be far better off with his own kind, in solidarity and in strength forcing concessions from white America after battle not negotiations.

While the acrimony and racial hatred of the late 60s and 70s abated in the 80s and 90s, the issue of segregation never went away but its character had changed and had in many ways become worse.  Inner city ghettoes became as insular and confined as South African townships during apartheid.  Although there were no police at the borders of Anacostia or Fairfield, Orangeville, and Monument Street in Baltimore, few residents left.  Years of failed entitlement programs, white liberal complicity in championing a street culture, black political venality, and a refusal to acknowledge and accept middle class, white norms,  kept the doors closed.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the ghettoes of all major American cities were still islands of poverty, illiteracy, joblessness, and social dysfunction.  No one, neither Right nor Left, black nor white seemed able to solve the problem, and the inner city population was once again marginalized and moved well off the front pages.

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In recent years, however, this marginalized black population is back in the news because of radical racial movements like Black Lives Matter.  This movement, organized around specific incidents of alleged police brutality, has evolved into a more general attack on ‘white privilege’, persistent white racism, and whites themselves.  The racial lines have been once again drawn as radically as they were in the days of the Panthers and Black Power.  The dream of Martin Luther King seems even farther away.

Yet, as in the era of Reconstruction and Radical Republicans, every action has an equal reaction.  Although he sympathy of much of the white population who, not unlike their fathers of a generation ago, has remained with black people in general, much of it has been lost thanks to the virulence of radical black movements.  Whereas MLK had a very specific consensual goal in mind – racial equality through legislation – these movements are based on racial conflict.  Legitimate concerns about police interaction with the black community have been eclipsed by extra-judicial judgment – white police officers are all racist, instruments of white power and privilege.  

Not surprisingly, the white community reacted.  Attacks on white, working class,  policemen and women, they said, were irrational, inflammatory, and wrong.  Those whites who might have been willing to consider urban security in a disinterested way, now refused. Worse, white police, now under the assumption of guilt in racial incidents, retreated, backed off from potentially dangerous situations.  The old, familiar, racial hatred shared in police cars (“Let the -----kill themselves.  Makes our job easier”) is heard again.

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The progressive white community is complicit in this racial divisiveness, for they have been even quicker to charge racism than the blacks they support.  By conflating the term, expanding it to include all slights, remarks, and comments no matter how innocent or benign;  by confirming radical black assumptions that all white people are guilty of racism and must share the guilt of their slave-owning ancestors; and by refusing to look objectively at the factors contributing to black poverty and social dysfunction, they have added to, not reduced racial animosity, suspicion, and hatred.

The position of Donald Trump is no surprise.  Elected in large part by disaffected white voters for whom he avowed to roll back liberal racial policies and challenge identity politics, Trump has been outspoken in his support for police, has been critical of a priori, extra-judicial assumptions of guilt and generalized accusations of racism, and adamant in his call for more individual responsibility on the part of racial minorities.  Equally unsurprisingly, the progressive Left has renewed its attacks on Trump, has been even more vocal in its charges of institutionalized racism and racial hatred.  The result – acrimony, suspicion, and an increasingly wide gap between opposing parties.

Race has always been the defining issue in American society.  Jefferson was right in anticipating the dangerous and intractable problems caused not by slavery itself but the consequences of it.   Lincoln was right in understanding that the consolidation of the Union was first and foremost and that compromise and conciliation were the only ways to assure it.  Martin Luther King was right in understanding the racial divide, valuing bi-racial participation in the civil rights movement, honoring non-violence; and perhaps more than anything else, understanding that collaborative movements for racial equality, given America’s difficult and antagonistic history, would take time.

Radicalism – both black and white – have done more to delay MLK’s vision than anything else.  Racial positions are now more hardened than ever, and it will take a long time for them to soften.

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