About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On voting rights and affirmative action, the Court leads us down a color-blind alley

A few brief thoughts on this week's Voting Rights and affirmative action rulings, as a down-payment on a much longer piece on the myth of 'color-blindness' which underpins them.

I don't know what they're going to say today on gay marriage, but the combination of the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action rulings certainly has me disappointed.  Without getting too deep into the intricacies of each, the majority opinion in each case seems to be based on two inter-related fallacies: 
1.  That race as a factor in determining life chances is behind us -- we now live in a color blind America, and our laws (and their enforcement) should therefore ignore the existence of race

2.  That laws and enforcement mechanisms that do not accept #1 do greater harm to either white people or states' rights than they do justice to people of color.
Neither of these things is even remotely true. 

The first one is the key, and it is the one that is most obviously false.  Any reasonable person would agree that one could think about #2 on a case by case basis, as long as you do NOT accept #1.  If you do accept #1 (as the majority in the Supreme Court has for some time, and as many white Americans do), then virtually every law or practice designed to further or protect civil rights will fail the test of #2. 

On this basis the court has essentially eviscerated both the Voting Rights Act and the use of race in college admissions in the past few days, all constitutional circumlocutions aside. 

People who think the court saved affirmative action the other day are mistaken. 

In the past decade the Court has narrowed, step by step, the Constitutionally permissible grounds under which race can be taken into account in pursuit of a state (public) interest.  Decades of rulings did this with K-12 school segregation, too, starting with 1974 Milliken v. Bradley and culminating in the Louisville/Seattle case of a few years ago.  As a consequence, while the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling says that separate is inherently unequal, there no longer exists any Constitutionally acceptable mechanism for actually addressing or fixing it, other than in states which have the appropriate language in their own constitutions.  The Court hasn't overturned Brown -- that would be too controversial.  But they've rendered it toothless, much like the southern Jim Crow states did with the 14th and 15th amendments from the 1870s until the mid-1960s.  The Court just did the same thing with the Voting Rights Act -- and thus, in a sense, with the 15th amendment.  In the next year or two, when the right case reaches them, they will do the same with affirmative action in college admissions.

There is a reckoning coming in the next decade or two with all of this. 

I don't know if it will be peaceful and easy, or periodically ugly and violent.  But the fact of the matter is that demographic change will soon render those folks we've generally called 'white' a minority in this country.  It is well known that by the middle of this century, 'whites' (as Americans have come to define them since World War II) will no longer constitute a majority of the population of the United States.   

On the eve of the financial crash, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that non-Hispanic whites would become a minority in the country in 2042, eight years earlier than had previously been estimated.  In many places, and among people under the age of 40 or so, this has already happened or been peacefully accepted.  Its even happening in large parts of the South -- Virginia, North Carolina, increasingly Florida, and eventually even Texas.  

To me, the rightward drift of the GOP, the emergence of the Tea Party, and the push for voter ID laws is part and parcel of a rearguard resistance movement by (mostly older, mostly privileged) whites who refuse to accept what the country is becoming.  Its quite similar to the way millions of white Americans reacted to the huge wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s (which included my family).  They tried desperately to hold back the tide, in ways that were ultimately inconsistent with many of their OWN values -- and finally, in the 30s and 40s, lost.  Southern whites continued to fight the same fight, this time against blacks, after that.

Much of this white resistance now is limited to the South, and to older folks nationally.  But because they have a stranglehold on one of our two national parties, and because our decentralized federal system has so many veto points that allow a small group of like-minded people to stop what they don't like, what could be an opportunity for the US to model tolerance and multiracial democracy to the rest of the world may become something else entirely.

The collision of the Great Recession with demographic change has lent our already-polarized national politics a discomforting flavor of racial apocalypse, diverting many Americans -- and most of the Republican Party -- away from the inequalities that truly matter, and toward a paranoid defense of the favored racial quarter.  We can see this in our daily lives, as American metropolitan areas re-segregate by race, while economic segregation metastasizes across the national landscape.  We can see it in the racialized rhetoric of the Tea Party.  And we can see it in the 'pull-up-the-ladder-of-opportunity' policies that the GOP increasingly recommends.  

And sadly, we can see a more 'genteel' version of it in the civil rights rulings of the Roberts court.

White Americans, of course, aren't monolithic.  While a lot of whites seem to be hunkering down in the Republicans' racial redoubt (particularly older whites), those who continue to define themselves as Democrats increasingly share the views of most blacks and Latinos not only on economics, opportunity and the role of government, but also on the issues of immigration, affirmative action and social programs.  This is particularly true for younger white voters.

My fear is that as the death rattle of white privilege gets louder, the group of white American dead-enders who continue to rage at the dying of the light will get too large and too influential, and the Republican Party will have boxed itself in.  Rather than occasionally winning elections and governing the polity in the presence of a loyal minority, they will instead choose to change the nature of the polity itself.  The temptation to pull up the ladder, close the doors, and slam shut the ballot boxes as the new day dawns will be too hard to resist.  

The result may be an effort to deprive these new Americans of their access to the levers of economic and political power, by changing the laws (through legislation and through the courts), by undermining the institutions that provide such access, and by underfunding, eliminating or 'drowning in the bathtub' the public institutions and programs that shape and underpin the opportunity structure.
It has happened before -- resistance, and the contraction of freedom and opportunity.  As school children we are taught that the American story has involved a gradual-but-inevitable opening up of freedom and access, from the Revolution to the present.  We have slowly if somewhat reluctantly included an ever-larger group of people into the American family, granting civil and voting rights, it is said.  

The problem with this triumphalist narrative is that it isn't true.  

Particularly with regard to the vote, there has been a hard fought ebb and flow, as Alexander Keyssar makes clear in his brilliant book The Right to Vote.  The first time this nation faced massive changes to its demography and identity, in a broader context of rising inequality and insecurity, was in the period between the end of the Civil War, and the Great Depression.  And while the reaction of some was to try to humanize industrial capitalism, and welcome the emergence of a polyglot and contested America, there was an equally strong pull in the other direction -- toward limitations on the franchise (Jim Crow in the South, voting obstacles in the North), toward immigration restriction, toward judicial doctrines and rulings that hampered government and protected capital, and toward an intense and often violent effort to protect and reinforce white privilege (lynching in the South, racially restrictive covenants, riots, and segregation in the North) and capital (strike-breaking and repression by police, state militias, the US military, and court injunctions).  

It was only when the Great Depression so thoroughly de-legitimized many of these rear-guard actions that a new path became possible.  But there was nothing inevitable about the outcome, and we would be living in a very different country today if the herrenvolk nation that millions of 'white' Americans had struggled so mightily for had carried the day, or if the United States had become the 'company town' that so many representatives of capital had sought.

The panic of the pale and privileged will surely go the way of all flesh eventually.  My hope is that they will not take the nation with them.

As long as whites in positions of power continue to believe that we now live in a color-blind nation, we face the possibility that what should otherwise be a peaceful and positive transition to a new America may instead endanger our democratic institutions.  White Americans can bring the temple down upon all of us.  Or they can strengthen it, so it protects everyone, themselves included.

We will either have a multiracial and just democracy, or we will not have a democracy.  Nor, it should be said, will we deserve one.

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