Black Rights and White Wrongs: Politicizing Race in America

KKK members support the Goldwater presidential bid at the 1964 RNC.
KKK members support the Goldwater presidential bid at the 1964 RNC.

When Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone was first published in 2000, it revealed an alarming trend: Americans were becoming less connected to family, friends, and community. (And this was before the smart phone.)

The groundbreaking book chronicles our decline in social connectedness, or social capital. The title refers to a key example: in the US, bowling leagues have disappeared, replaced by individuals who now bowl alone.

Putnam offers no definitive explanation for the dive in civic engagement. But he notes several contributing factors:

  • pressures of time and money, hence the need for two-career families
  • suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl
  • media and electronic entertainment
  • a generational shift

Revisiting the book now with a modern perspective provides fresh insight:

The key line is: “Sometime around 1965-70, America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”

Why did Americans begin abandoning the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Clubs, the Rotary, Kiwanis, the Women League of Voters, the PTA, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and veterans’ organizations?

What happened during those years that altered US policy, direction, and character?

More importantly, after decades of 20th century progress, why did we change course?

The Great Compression describes the period of the 1940s to the 1970s when differences in incomes and living standards were compressed. Americans from all social classes were more equal, creating our most democratically shared prosperity in history. This ended in 1979.

Explains Hedrick Smith in Who Stole the American Dream?:

America’s upward mobility ended In 1980, at which point all economic gains were redirected to the top 1%.

The roots of this reversal can be traced back to 1965 - directly to the Civil Rights Movement.

DESEGRAGATION

During the 1960s, white Southerners unhappy with the repeal of Jim Crow migrated away from the Democratic party.

This mass exodus began when JFK introduced sweeping Civil Rights legislation in a televised speech on June 11, 1963.

The night Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he remarked to his press aide Bill Moyers, “I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Alabama’s segregationist Governor George Wallace fueled this charge. He promoted the fear that black rights would come at the expense of whites, claiming, “A n****r is trying to get your job, move into your neighborhood,” and the only way to stop this was through “states rights,” coded language for discrimination since before the Civil War. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater echoed this racist sentiment.

Meanwhile, the ultimate symbol of white power, the confederate flag, returned to a prominent place in Southern society. It had all but disappeared, but now it was trotted back out to intimidate blacks.

White resentment was widespread - and Richard Nixon’s Republican party harnessed it for his Southern Strategy.

The Southern Strategy was the strategic exploitation of racial animosity in order to secure white votes.

Political strategist and Chairman of the RNC Lee Atwater explains how this works:

THE SOUTHERN STRATEGY

In 1964 LBJ’s War on Poverty campaign captured the ethos of mid-century America: We have a moral obligation to end poverty in our lifetime.

This ad appeals to our nobler virtues - our sense of community, civic responsibility, and compassion. It explains that poverty is not related to character, but happenstance, and we, the American people, can do something about it.

In 1968 Nixon’s Law and Order campaign marked a decisive turn in tone and policy: The Civil Rights Movement has made America unsafe.

This ad appeals to our fear - equating civil rights with violence, while appropriating the term to mean white safety from blacks. The ad focuses on the movement’s conflict, implying violence comes from blacks, and it must be met with force.

With Nixon, America’s focus shifted from eliminating poverty through unity to inciting fear through division.

Threat of punishment, no matter how severe, does little to prevent crime, or there’d be no need for prisons, or the death penalty. The only way to reduce crime is by reducing poverty, which LBJ was trying to do.

However, Nixon wasn’t concerned with crime. “Crime prevention” was merely his way of dealing with the “damn negroes.”

Nixon used race as a weapon.

Thus, Nixon’s Southern Strategy would demand subtlety.

DOG WHISTLING

Such coded language, or Dog Whistles, include Welfare Reform, Tough on Crime, War on Drugs, State’s Rights, Neighborhood Schools, Illegal Immigrants, a Border Wall, or anything else that negatively implies “minorities.”

They operate much like a Pavlovian response.

Explains Ian Haney Lopez in Dog Whistle Politics:

Instead of educating, training, or preparing black men for the American workforce, Nixon’s platform was to lock them up. He race baited with the term “Law and Order.

According to Watergate co-conspirator and Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser John Ehrlichman:

This policy continued under the Reagan Administration, to even greater effect. They race baited with the term “Tough on Crime.

As Data Scientist Cathy O’Neil explains in Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases our Inequality and Threatens our Democracy:

Policing was only half of Reagan’s plan. The other was declaring a War on Drugs.

c) minorities (i.e. the ghetto)

In White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Carol Anderson explains how Reagan’s Iran Contra affair brought the crack epidemic into urban America, compliments of the NSC and CIA.

This was another way of dividing social class by race and criminalizing minorities (crack) while wealthy whites were overlooked (coke).

This punitive approach is almost exclusive to the US, betraying both our lack of Christian compassion and our deep-seated racial fear. In the process, we created an American prison factory contingent on untreated mental illness and racial profiling.

Our inmates eventually return to society with no education, no counseling, and no job training, yet they do have plenty of anger and psychological wounds from prison, as well as possible gang affiliations.

Still, we are taught to blame them for their misfortune rather than offer assistance. This callous disregard is yet another component of the Southern Strategy, and it helped Reagan win the White House.

IDENTITY POLITICS

Ronald Reagan did not begin his presidential campaign in Hollywood, nor in Orange County, nor in his hometown of Dixon, Illinois. Instead, his campaign strategists chose Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Philadelphia is famous for the KKK bombing of a church, and for the lynching of three civil rights volunteers, (as portrayed in the film Mississippi Burning).

The area was so racist, whites killed whites for merely supporting black rights. This was the Southern Strategy’s target demographic, which Reagan addressed at the all-white Neshoba County Fair.

Reagan was no moderate, nor was he a proponent of civil rights.

Other racist language continued, as Reagan’s entire platform was built on it.

Reagan’s welfare story, like many others, was manufactured to convince whites to think of government help in terms of race, thereby rejecting liberalism and the New Deal.

He painted the poor as criminals and the white Middle Class as hardworking victims.

Demonizing the poor allowed the Reagan administration to justify cutting social welfare programs.

This “poverty of character” idea ran counter to LBJ’s New Deal compassion - and to reality.

Before 1965, most of the New Deal’s programs were available only to whites.

White: 40.2%​​

Black: 25.7%

Hispanic: 10.3%

Asian: 2.1%

Native American: 1.2%

Republicans didn’t care these programs helped more whites than blacks. Like everyone else, red state beneficiaries were manipulated to vote against their own welfare.

This is the high price of Identity Politics - political machinations that divide the public by race, religion, gender, sexuality, and other social identifiers.

Reagan’s Identity Politics relied on the Southern Strategy to exploit racial tension through Dog Whistling.

But these were merely tools to achieve his real goal.

CASH GRAB

Reagans corporate backers propelled him to the presidency for one reason - to rig the system in order to reduce their financial burden and increase their economic gains.

Racial resentment was used on the public in order to redistribute wealth to the 1%, absolving them of any responsibility to fund our government.

This blatant cash-grab by the 1% is more commonly known as Reaganomics, which led to less government funding, less oversight, and drastic cuts to social services, particularly those used by minorities:

During the 1980s, those in poverty soared to 35 million. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration doubled military spending to nearly half a trillion, and our national debt soared with it.

In The Man Who Sold the World, William Kleinknecht explains Reagan’s legacy:

“[Reagan’s] constant attacks on the inefficiency of government, a rallying cry taken up by legions of conservative politicians across the country, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more money that was taken way from government programs, the more ineffective they became, and the more ineffective they became, the more ridiculous government bureaucrats came to be seen in the public eye. Gradually, government, and the broader realm of public service, has come to seem disreputable, disdained by the best and brightest…and the image of government has been dragged down even further by the behavior of politicians, who, imbued with the same exaltation of self-interest that is the essence of Reaganism, increasingly treat public office as a vehicle for their own enrichment... He laid the foundation for a new global economic order... He enacted policies that helped wipe out the high-paying jobs for the working class that were the real backbone of this country... Reagan propelled the transition to hyper-capitalism...in which the forces of self-interest and profit seek to make a final rout of traditional human values. His legacy – mergers, deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization, globalization – helped weaken the family and eradicate small-town life and the sense of community… Because of deregulation, trucking concerns, bus companies, and airlines have eliminated much of their service to small rural communities, leaving them isolated and economically depressed in a society ever more dominated by the great population centers on either coast. Because of corporate consolidation, businesses are no longer owned locally and Main Street is gone. Companies made over many times by mergers and forced to tailor every decision to stock market prices have little loyalty to communities or people...Plants are closed and companies are downsized, families uprooted, communities left without anchors… Without his tax, regulatory, and antitrust policies, there would have been no savings-and-loan bailout, no frenzy of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s, no unseemly scramble for overnight fortunes by arbitrageurs and raiders, no destructive obsession with quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment, no wholesale abandonment of ethics on the part of corporate executives.

During the Great Progression, FDR furthered the belief that the economy existed to serve the public.

In 1980, Reagan ushered in the era of capitalism at the expense of democracy. This created a staggering rise in inequality, and laid the groundwork for America’s new corporatocracy.

Since the Reagan years, America has been in decline. But this wouldn’t have been possible without the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the corrupt conservative establishment that exploited our racial divide.

THE LEGACY OF THE SOUTHERN STRATEGY

  • White men behind bars: 1 in 106
  • Hispanic men behind bars: 1 in 36
  • Black men behind bars: 1 in 15

Despite the reality that poor whites typically report committing more crimes than minorities, blacks are disproportionately poor and young, and thereby more likely to be swept into our criminal justice system.

When prisons are privatized, like in the US, there is a profit motive to keep them full. The number of people in U.S. prisons increased from around 600,000 in 1980 to over 2 million in 2002.

Consider:

Poverty-stricken communities, especially those of color, never recover from their economic breakdown and cycle of incarceration.

Rather than meet these needs with an influx of social workers, trauma counselors, rehabilitation specialists, drug treatment centers, and free higher education to level the playing field, we rely on law enforcement to control the chaos, militarizing to do so, while shunning our social responsibility.

We send black fathers to jail for possession of drugs that white college kids use without worry, yet we publicly claim we are for Family Values.

We deny our white privilege, oblivious to the opportunities we have enjoyed, yet ignore the struggles faced by minorities.

We throw our homeless in jail for sleeping on park benches instead of finding them shelter, yet we claim to be a Christian nation.

As US inequality hits Depression-era levels, we continue to blame the poor for their poverty and the homeless for their mental illness, and refuse to address the institutionalized ignorance that led to both.

RACISM IN THE 21ST CENTURY

That same year, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. It was our country’s greatest natural disaster, exacerbated by the failure of, and lack of funding for, the Army Corp of Engineers’ levee system, as well as the utter incompetence at the highest levels of government.

Despite such confessions, Republicans have made no effort to retire the Dog Whistling, nor have they proposed any solutions or reparations.

Instead, they’ve done quite the opposite.

Voter Fraud:

Conservatives falsely claim Voter Fraud to limit voting rights of minorities, despite only 10 cases in 15 years, or 1 out of every 15,000,000 prospective voters. In other words, less often than people are struck and killed by lightning.

Gerrymandering:

Propaganda Outlets:

Voter fraud myths persist, and gerrymandering gets ignored, because conservatives dismantled the Fairness Doctrine, which allowed them to create partisan media.

Through the propaganda network Fox News, they reinforce their talking points without debate, indoctrinating audiences coast to coast.

Roger Ailes was hired to spearhead the operation, as he had taught Nixon how to manipulate public opinion by disguising paid political events as news.

With a 24-hour format, and an ongoing narrative of faux-persecution, the only thing missing was an antagonist.

Enter Barack Obama, and the Southern Strategy returned with a vengeance.

The Tea Party:

Writes Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone:

Tea Partiers despised Obamacare, but when it was called Romneycare in Massachusetts, they had no problem.

Black Lives Don’t Matter:

Since 2008, the Ku Klux Klan has returned, emboldened by the current nationalist platform. Less than a century ago, the KKK retreated when their members’ identities were revealed. Now, they declare allegiance on social media and confront protestors in public with no shame.

In 2014 Republicans allowed Flint, Michigan’s drinking water to became contaminated with lead. This affected nearly 100,000 residents, with race and poverty playing a key role. The GOP closed the investigation before anyone could be held accountable.

The year 2016 gave rise to Donald Trump, a demagogue who rode to office by demonizing minorities, inciting anger and leading his followers to acts of violence. Because of the election, hate crimes increased by 20%.

With Trump, the Southern Strategy’s racial subtext has been elevated to mainstream text, but few understand its manipulative context, and even fewer its toxic consequences.

CONCLUSION

In the 20th century, Republicans deliberately employed racism to wield power over the American electorate.

In the 21st century, the next generation of Republicans continue to use these divisive tactics, from Dog Whistling to Identity Politics, without recognizing their insidious origin.

The [Civil Rights] movement’s gains were never just about rights but were more deeply a challenge to the ideology of white supremacy with a strong assertion of the moral equality of all Americans, no matter the color of their skin. It was about the humanity of black people, but white people’s own human souls and human rights were also at stake, and not just legal civil rights. White privilege is a more nuanced term than white supremacy, but it amounts to the same thing. It continues to be an unspoken and sometimes stated assumption in American life that whites do or even should enjoy, benefit from, and even depend upon privileges that blacks or other people of color don’t have or deserve. As the legal basis of those white privileges have historically diminished, the majority white culture has still tried to preserve its privileges culturally, economically, politically, and societally. All of this can be very subtle, but it is no less real, and no less brutally oppressive, and it can easily explode into violence.”

If you’ve ever voted for a candidate because of his stance on the drug war, because he was tough on crime, because you didn’t want your tax dollars wasted on welfare, you voted racistly without even knowing it.

We allow politicians of power to manipulate us with prejudice, ensuring that racism lives.

We believe that the lowest white man is better than the best black man, yet ignore the plutocrats who pick our pockets.

As long as we allow this to continue, inequality is the price we pay.

And as long as black progress, like Obama, is met with white backlash, like Trump, all civil rights are at risk.

The painful truth is...we’d rather bowl alone than in a bowling league with black people.

The Civil Rights Movement did not ruin America.

We, white people, did it ourselves, because we are racist, selfish, and self destructive.

And we refuse to acknowledge it.

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