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Will the Charleston tragedy serve as an inflection point for race relations?

A tipping point? Brian Snyder/Reuters

Will the Charleston tragedy serve as an inflection point for race relations?

On June 17, in Charleston, South Carolina, it was once again proven that – to some, at least – black lives don’t matter. But this time it wasn’t under color of authority. This time, it was in a church, and at the hands of a person who’s clearly and unambiguously racist.

What’s happened in the wake of the tragedy is as shocking in scope as it is in its swiftness. President Obama used it as an opportunity to remind us of the racism that continues to plague the nation. Further, the suspect’s affinity for the Confederate battle flag led to Governor Nikki Haley’s call for its removal from the State Capitol and on Monday July 6 the South Carolina Senate voted 37 to 3 to do just that. People of all racial hues took to the streets to protest the killings and their basis in racism.

All of this has led some to believe that what’s happening in South Carolina represents an inflection point when it comes to race: an opportunity to hit the “reset button” where racism is concerned in America.

Before we embrace this conclusion lock, stock and barrel, however, we need to take a closer look.

My experience writing on race, social movements and the postwar South suggests that we must look to the past for clues about the likelihood Charleston serving as a game changer.

The role of both domestic and international opinion

Whether we define racial progress in symbolic or substantive ways, history suggests that when whites use violence against blacks, it sometimes backfires, resulting in racial progress.

However, the conditions under which it happens are very specific.

Typically, there are at least two audiences – third parties, if you will – to which forces of change appeal: one domestic, the other international.

The sympathy of the domestic audience (generally non-Southern) has – for much of the past 60 years – resided with the progressive forces as they witnessed scenes in which peaceful black protesters, who simply wished to be treated in accordance with the law of the land, were brutalized by white southerners. Such scenes evoked moral revulsion and emotional shock.

The international audience was no less important.

In the context of the Cold War, during which the United States was engaged in a global ideological struggle with the Soviet Union, race and racism were crucial elements.

To the extent that both superpowers were in a competition for international influence, and the United States often advertised itself as a beacon for freedom and democracy, the continued oppression of 10% of its population rendered such a claim dubious at best.

Further, to the degree that much of the competition for strategic access and alliances, by the 1950s, took place among nations in which people of color were in the majority, Jim Crow – and African diplomats being kicked out of diners – didn’t play too well.

Of course, the Soviets took advantage of every act of violence and repression that took place in the South, denouncing such blatant hypocrisy to worldwide audiences. The violence associated with the Freedom Rides serves as one example of this. “Scenes of bloodshed in Montgomery are,” said Radio Moscow, “the worst examples of savagery…taking place in a country which has the boldness to declare that its way of life is…an example for other people.”

With these caveats in mind, let’s now consider the relationship between violence and racial progress, beginning with the civil rights legislation of 1957 and 1960.

Violence and racial progress

Emmett Till was 14 when he was killed. ImageEditor, CC BY-SA

It was close on the heels of the murder of Emmett Till (1955) and the attempt to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas (1957) that civil rights bills were ratified with the intention of improving access to voting for black southerners.

Ultimately, however, both fell far short of the stated goal. For instance, as of 1958, only Tennessee could boast that more than 40% of its black eligible voters were actually registered.

What happened?

In the aftermath of Emmett Till’s murder and, especially the white resistance at Little Rock, the Eisenhower Administration was moved to push for civil rights legislation as a means of blunting continuing Soviet assaults on the “American way of life.” As the president himself said, after ordering the deployment of federal troops to protect the new black students at Little Rock’s Central High School:

[I]t would be difficult to exaggerate the harm being done to the prestige and influence, and indeed to the safety, of our nation and the world. Our enemies are gloating over this incident and using it everywhere to misrepresent our whole nation.

On the domestic side, however, the audience was limited to white southerners, because civil rights failed to register on the national agenda in the 1950s. And since southern reactionaries and their representatives weren’t too keen on displacing white supremacy, it is hardly surprising that the civil rights legislation of 1957 and 1960 failed to achieve its goals.

Now go forward four years.

The racial progress achieved with the legislation of 1964 and 1965 also took place in the shadow of the Cold War.

These were the days of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the domestic audience also played an important role here – and this time it was nationwide.

The attacks on Freedom Riders and sit-in participants, the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in which four young girls were murdered, the spectacle during which fire hoses and dogs were turned loose on women and children protesters, and the “Bloody Sunday” march from Montgomery to Selma: this violence was extensively covered by the national media with shocking photographs like that of protester Amelia Boynton lying unconscious on the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Alabama police attack on Bloody Sunday. FBI

Civil rights catapulted to the top of the American social and political agenda.

Many Americans were outraged at the behavior of many southern whites, law enforcement included. Ultimately, this outrage resulted in legislation that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race (among other factors), segregation, and expedited the implementation of the Brown decision.

Let us now return to the tragedy in Charleston.

Who is watching Charleston?

The domestic audience is certainly paying attention to South Carolina, as any glance at today’s media shows. What’s missing, however, is the international audience. This, in my judgment, is critical.

In the absence of an external existential threat to keep America honest, the impetus for racial progress lies squarely in the domestic sphere.

And this means that change is at the mercy of reactionary conservatives, people who, as my research and that of Matt Barreto into the Tea Party has shown, are fervent, disdainful of compromise and fearful of an existential threat to an American way of life in which mainly white Christians are the chosen group.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, these sentiments can be traced to the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, in which the return of the “New Negro” from World War I represented a threat to the existing racial order.

Dylann Roof is an outlier in terms of his actions, but his resentments are more widespread than may be generally acknowledged. Research I conducted in 2010 makes the case that the suspect isn’t the only one who harbors such sentiments; disdain for blacks is quite prevalent among contemporary reactionaries..

When it was discovered that Roof has an affinity for the Confederate battle flag, it further confirmed what many blacks have come to believe: that the Confederate flag represents the continued oppression of blacks.

This, then, is what needs to be kept in mind as we witness South Carolina’s lawmakers debate Governor Haley’s call to remove the flag from the State Capitol.

South Carolina’s Senate debates - now comes the House.

Yes, white-on-black violence, as it appears to prick the conscious of sympathetic whites, has resulted in adjustments in the past, and it may do so again.

However, we must remain mindful of the fact that more enduring progress has taken place when domestic sympathy was reinforced by the political pragmatism associated with the presence of an international pressure.

If we’re talking about a global military and ideological threat that has the capacity to threaten the existence of the United States or, at the very least, that claims to be interested in black lives, we’re fresh out of those at the moment: Islamist terrorism fails to meet either criteria.

What is more, as my own research confirms, the reactionary right only continues to grow. Today’s Republican Party has been forced to adopt positions on, say, comprehensive immigration reform that are at odds with the moderate wing of the party.

The fact is that GOP moderates and reactionaries significantly part ways on issues related to race. For instance, only 10% of reactionaries believed coverage of the George Zimmerman trial “raised important issues about race” warranting further discussion, compared to 40% of GOP moderates. In another example, when asked to evaluate the persistence of racial discrimination when it comes to voting in the wake of the 2013 Supreme Court rollback of voting rights for blacks, 50% of GOP moderates believe this to be true versus 37% of GOP reactionaries.

I for one, remain to be convinced that the popular outrage we see now will result in real change.

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