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The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America

Philip A. Klinkner with Rogers M. Smith
The University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0-226-44339-6


There is something too mean in looking upon the Negro, when you are in trouble as a citizen, and when you are free from trouble, as an alien. . . . He has been a citizen just three times in the history of this government, and it has always been in times of trouble. In time of trouble we are citizens. Shall we be citizens in war, and aliens in peace? Would that be just? — Frederick Douglass

There came a time when justice seemed at hand at last. In 1965, the first President elected from a southern state since the Civil War, a proud son of that great pillar of the old Confederacy, the State of Texas, responded to searing controversies over civil rights by proposing a Voting Rights Act. It aimed to make African-Americans full and equal citizens of the United States in every respect. It was time, Lyndon Johnson solemnly told his nation, for America finally to "make good the promise of democracy." He insisted to his fellow white citizens that "it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice." "And," he said, borrowing from the spiritual that had so greatly inspired civil rights activists, "we shall overcome."

It is hard for many Americans today to feel just how astonishing and compelling it was to hear that President say those words in his unreconstructed Texas drawl. It is hard now, because for more than thirty years we Americans have told ourselves that what many were then saying with more hope than confidence was in fact simply true. We reassure ourselves that sooner or later, the U.S. had to pass the Voting Rights Act and other measures overthrowing older laws that had discriminated against blacks in politics and in virtually every other sphere of life. Racial discrimination, we now often believe, violates and had always violated Americans' deepest values. Many of us believe that as a result of these core values, our history has been a slow, difficult, but steady march toward laying to rest the unfortunate prejudices we inherited from our distant past. It could not, we like to think, really have been otherwise.

It is hard to remember now that for many in 1965, as for all our previous history, the statement "We shall overcome" was far more an expression of faith, hope, and prayer than a confident prediction. In 1965, many citizens knew that up until almost the moment Johnson spoke those three words, many white Americans regarded any political invocation of them as a dangerously radical threat, usually advanced by disreputable, trouble-making blacks and their wild-eyed white agitator allies. In 1965, progress toward racial justice was still so recent and so bitterly contested that it was hard not to harbor doubts about whether the forces of white supremacy would ever truly yield. After all, Alabama, the scene of the most violent civil rights protests in 1965, was governed by another southern white man, George Corley Wallace, who had proclaimed only two years before that the policy of the "Great Anglo-Saxon Southland" was "Segregation now. . . segregation tomorrow. . . segregation forever!" And in 1965, many more Americans knew that until World War II, most American leaders, north and south, had unselfconsciously defended white supremacy, segregation and racial hierarchy in rhetoric far more similar to George Wallace’s than to Lyndon Johnson's. To many reform-minded citizens, black and white, Johnson's speech seemed not so much a routinely predictable culmination as a heart-stopping miracle.

It is not our thesis in this book that Johnson's speech or the subsequent passage of the muscular and extraordinarily effective Voting Rights Act of 1965 were miracles. Neither, however, do we share the complacent conventional wisdom that has come to prevail in its wake--that the nation's movement toward greater racial equality was somehow preordained by the characteristics and the principles of the American founding, the American national soul, or the broader tides of modern world history. That wisdom looks increasingly dubious today, as a generation after the Voting Rights Act, explosive racial divisions continue to plague American life, having only grown more complex and perplexing as the nation's racial and ethnic diversity has increased. We have been driven to write this book by concerns about current events, but it responds to a more general and enduring question. We ask, under what circumstances has the United States made significant progress toward greater racial justice, toward more equal and meaningful opportunities for all its inhabitants, no matter how society classifies them in racial or ethnic terms?

We do not try here to explore this question in its full complexity, involving many racial and ethnic groups. We focus on the relationships between whites and blacks that have provided, we argue, the basic template for American racial hierarchies, one that has shaped the statuses of all other American groups.. Nor do we attempt here an elaborate empirical causal analysis of our central question. It will take many studies to do such work persuasively. Instead, we have combed through American history and arrived inductively at what seems to us the most likely answer, for reasons we give here. It is an answer that ought to be subjected to more rigorous testing by appropriate specialists. But we also think that our answer is so significant to contemporary American race relations that we feel compelled to lay out our claims, and to do so in as emphatic and accessible a manner as possible, prior to such lengthy investigations. Though our answer is only suggestive, it is, we believe, disturbingly plausible. It is plausible because such vast stretches of our national history cry out in support of our argument. It is disturbing because if our answer is right, we Americans must not only abandon our belief that there was anything inevitable about the overcoming of Jim Crow laws in the 1960s. We must also recognize soberly that further progress toward a just and harmonious overcoming of racial divisions and inequalities might not occur in our time, unless we as a people make extraordinary efforts of a sort we have never undertaken before except under the most extreme duress.

In brief, our answer is that at least so far in American history, substantial progress toward greater (never yet full) racial equality has come only when three factors have concurred. Progress has come only:

1. In the wake of a large-scale war requiring extensive economic and military mobilization of African-Americans for success;

2. When the nature of America's enemies has prompted American leaders to justify such wars and their attendant sacrifices by emphasizing the nation's inclusive, egalitarian, and democratic traditions; and

3. When the nation has possessed domestic political protest movements willing and able to bring pressure upon national leaders to live up to that justificatory rhetoric by instituting domestic reforms.

We do not say all these things must always be present for progress to occur. We do say that thus far, substantial progress has never occurred without these three factors present and working together.

The essential evidence for our argument is that there have only been three eras of significant progress toward greater racial equality in U.S. history, and in all three all these elements have been at work. The initial reform era was the First Emancipation following the Revolutionary War, when slavery was put on the path of extinction in the north and restrictions on free blacks and on manumissions lessened even in much of the south. The Revolution had been a war fought in the name of republicanism and inalienable human rights against a monarchical foe. It was won with key contributions from American blacks. And it was accompanied by white and black religious movements, especially, that highlighted the contradictions between the Declaration of Independence and the continuation of black slavery. The second significant reform era was the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. That massive struggle probably could not have been won without black soldiers. It led to the post-war constitutional amendments that ended slavery and established formally equal black citizenship, in accordance with the intense demands of black and white abolitionists. The third reform period is the modern civil rights era, occurring in the wake of World War II and during the Cold War, including its "hot" Korean and Vietnam phases. The years from 1941 to 1968 framed an extraordinarily prolonged period in which all three of the factors we stress remained present. Throughout these three and a half decades, the U.S. continuously mobilized huge numbers of black soldiers for actual or possible combat against Nazi and Communist foes, against which American leaders stressed the nation's democratic ideals. Meanwhile a broad array of civil rights protesters pushed to make those ideals realities for all Americans.

In between the first two reform eras, as we shall see, progress toward racial equality ceased in most arenas of American life. In many areas whites constructed new systems of racial hierarchy that significantly eroded previous advances. Today, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the forces that pressed for racial equality so powerfully for so long in modern American have again receded (though not vanished). Whether the nation will nonetheless continue to progress in a racially egalitarian direction is, we think, the most important political question facing the U.S. in the 21st century. From our reading of the headlines of the present in light of the lessons of the past, we regretfully see all too abundant cause for concern.

Our story is thus consistent with the old adage of civil rights workers, "two steps forward, one step back." We stress, however, that thus far, the two steps forward have come in concentrated bursts of ten to fifteen years. The one step back, in contrast, has repeatedly been a lengthy stride in which the shoe falls over a period of 60 to 75 years. Hence the normal experience of the typical black person in U.S. history has been to live in a time of stagnation and decline in progress toward racial equality. That reality helps explain the deep pessimism about race visible in the outlook even of more affluent blacks today and in much of America’s past.

Such pessimism is one reason why no part of our argument is wholly new with us, even though it will be uncongenial to many. Broadly speaking, specialists in international affairs have noted the relationship between international influences and domestic politics, and the ways in which wartime exigencies can lead to the expansion of citizenship rights. In the case of civil rights for black Americans, many black scholars in particular have stressed the importance of war in motivating previous racial reforms. As the quote at the beginning of this book suggests, perhaps the first formulation of this thesis was offered by the great anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass. He suggested blacks had been treated as citizens in the U.S. only in military ranks during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War (and, we would add, only the two large-scale struggles had any enduring impact on peacetime racial statuses). More recent observers, such as Mary Frances Berry and the late Benjamin Quarles, have also made the connection between blacks’ military service and their citizen rights. In particular, scholars such as Derrick Bell, Mary Dudziak, and John Skrentny have shown how the imperatives of the Cold War were crucial to the civil rights advances of the 1950s and 1960s. The distinguished historian of American nativism, John Higham, has recently contended in a kindred vein that America has had "Three Reconstructions." He sees the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II and the Cold War, and their accompanying defenses cast in democratic, inclusive ideological terms, as vital catalysts to periods of racial progress, decisively reinforcing the efforts of civil rights activists.

But though many perceptive analysts have recognized the impact of wars on racial equality, it remains an insight many American scholars and citizens resist. Its acceptance is blocked by widespread embrace of a different view of American racial progress. That view was well summarized in a passage by historian Philip Gleason, first published in the 1980 Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups and subsequently both republished and widely cited by many leading scholars. Gleason argued that historically, to be an American, "a person did not have to be of any particular national, linguistic, religious, or ethnic background. All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality, and republicanism. Thus the universalist ideological character of American nationality meant that it was open to anyone who willed to become an American." Gleason quickly added that, to be sure, "universalism had its limits from the beginning, because it did not include either blacks or Indians, and in time other racial and cultural groups were regarded as falling outside the range of American nationality." Thus there was "a latent predisposition toward an ethnically defined concept of nationality." But this "exclusiveness ran contrary to the logic of the defining principles, and the official commitment to those principles has worked historically to overcome exclusions and to make the practical boundaries of American identity more congruent with its theoretical universalism."

We challenge this claim about the character and power of America’s original "official…principles" and the optimistic story of steady, almost natural progress toward racial equality that scholars have built upon it. As Rogers Smith has detailed, American political thought has always contained "multiple traditions," including civic ideals presenting white Americans as in many respects God's chosen people, specially equipped by nature and providence for individual liberty and political self-governance in ways that blacks, Native Americans, and other races were not. Hence the nation’s massive violations of racially egalitarian ideals, and its recurring erosion of egalitarian reforms, have not always been experienced by Americans as turns from national idealism and the common good to rather jaded individual self-seeking. Instead, many Americans have always been able to tell themselves that they were remaining true to their best ideals, the advancement of white Protestant civilization, a noble common cause endangered by what they genuinely believed to be misguided and destructive radical egalitarianism. If we are right that Americans have long had ample ideological resources for not only justifying but glorifying racial inequalities, then it is difficult to have so much confidence that the "national ideology" will predictably work toward the expansion of civil rights, if Americans only recall it rightly.

To be sure, the racialist strains in American ideology probably gained their power originally from desires to justify the institution of chattel slavery as well as the seizure of land from the native tribes, and those economic roots of racism are now part of the nation’s past. But racial hierarchies were then embodied in virtually every institution of American life, political, economic, educational, religious, cultural and social, by the time of the Revolutionary War. They were supported by most American governments through most of our history and still persist on a de facto basis today. With the great sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, we believe that the attachment of American whites to our country's longstanding racial ordering soon became not only and perhaps even not chiefly a matter of economic interests, though those interests are a major part of the story. Through most of our history, white Americans have also received a "psychological wage," to use Du Bois's term, from living in a society in which members of their racial group occupy the leading positions in most institutions.

That favored status has meant that whites are commonly accepted as the "normal" and norm-setting, and hence really the most prestigious, members of American society. People who have grown up within arrangements in which their group regularly receives special social esteem as well as more material benefits, arrangements which seem so familiar as to be virtually natural, are always likely to find changes in those arrangements disquieting. Predictably, they will look for reasons to confine and condemn them. Our fellow white Americans, we firmly believe, are not people any more inherently prone to racism, selfishness, or evil than any other group in this or any other society. Their attachments to familiar ways are perfectly normal and human, and in many regards such attachments can rightly be cherished. But in American society, whites happen to be the group who have historically had the upper hand; and so many of their understandable attachments to the status quo, often accompanied by genuine good will toward others, nonetheless have always worked against overcoming real and severe injustices. We confront here almost the political equivalent of a Newtonian law: bodies in power tend to stay in power unless acted upon by outside forces. Even if there are economic benefits to egalitarian reforms, many whites consciously or unconsciously experience the loss of the specially privileged status they have long enjoyed as a cost too high to pay. If there are not unusually strong imperatives to do so, most simply cannot be expected to pay that price.

Finally, as political scientists we must insist that any analysis of prospects for reform in America ultimately has to come to grips with the incentives that shape the behavior of political parties, for little change can come without strong support from at least one major party. Even if there are powerful elements in American national ideology supporting equal rights for all, no party is likely to push with equal power for the full realization of those ideals unless it can hope to garner support in the form of votes and dollars by doing so. And in a country in which votes and dollars have always been predominantly in white hands, parties will usually have strong incentives to support equal rights symbolically, perhaps, but to back off any strong push to make substantive changes. At least, that will be the case if whites have any normal propensity to resist change in arrangements that benefit them Again, barring exceptional circumstances, we doubt that leaders of major political parties are likely today, any more than in the past, to champion policies that erode rather than reinforce the advantages of those groups who are most numerous, most affluent, and most politically powerful. The United States is a complex and diverse society, but it is still one in which in most regards middle-class and upper-class whites are best positioned. Indeed, the political advantages of whites have in the past and the present led political leaders to most often to uphold rather than condemn America’s racial hierarchy.

Hence we feel compelled in this book to sound a note of alarm. There is still much to overcome if we are to achieve a racially equal, free, and harmonious society. Given what it has taken to bring meaningful and enduring change in the past, it is hard to believe that Americans will confront and master the difficult challenges we face in race relations simply as a matter of course.

There is, fortunately, reason to believe that egalitarian changes can be catalyzed today without something so massive as the major wars that have triggered transformations in the past. We shall see that, though racial progress has not been either inevitable or irreversible in America, it has been in significant ways cumulative. The moral and material victories of the modern civil rights movement in particular mean that it is now much harder to defend invidious racial discrimination than in the past. Demographically, economically, and intellectually, proponents of racial equality now have many more resources they can employ to push for change, even in peacetime.

Yet extensive and unjust racial inequalities persist. Precisely because so much in our circumstances that makes complacency about these inequalities comfortable, there is, we think, little genuine reason for complacency about the prospects for racial progress today. Still, politics is a realm in which analysts can only discern tendencies, probabilities, obstacles and opportunities, never certainties. It is never easy, but it is always possible to swim against the tide, taking advantage of all available countercurrents. In the end, our political fate is something that we have significant powers to choose and determine. It is because we think Americans can and should choose to commit themselves anew to overcoming our deepest and most enduring national divisions, not because we believe they cannot or will not do so, that we have written this book.