The past two years of racial turmoil have removed any and all doubt about the continuing significance of race in the United States.
Both whites and blacks have exhibited increasingly negative views on race relations since 2011. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that Americans’ perceptions of racial progress have drastically deteriorated over the last year.
The current racial environment stands in stark contrast to 2008, when numerous commentators mused about a post-racial America.
We believe the post-racial narrative began to lose substantial support after George Zimmerman eluded incarceration for the murder of Trayvon Martin, reached a flashpoint with the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson by a police officer, continued to loose steam with the high-profile killings of blacks such as Freddie Gray and Rekia Boyd and was permanently disabled after the grisly massacre of nine black church members in Charleston, South Carolina.
Why does race continue to haunt us, 150 years after the Civil War, 50 years after the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, and six years into the Obama presidency?
The persistence of racism, we argue, rests in no small part on the inability of moderate conservatives – from politicians like Speaker of the House John Boehner to columnists like The New York Times’ David Brooks – to recognize the ways in which it continues to affect the life chances of blacks.
We have been here before.
As social scientists well-versed in the history of the civil rights era and the backlash against it, we see a direct parallel between today’s conservative moderates and those of the Jim Crow South to whom Martin Luther King Jr addressed his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963.
The Birmingham Campaign
“If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.”
These were the words that longtime activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth used to encourage King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to come to Birmingham and take part in nonviolent direct action protests against segregation.
When they arrived, King, Shuttlesworth and the SCLC launched a formal campaign called Project C (C for confrontation) in which – through sit-ins at lunch counters and marches on City Hall – nonviolent protesters let Birmingham and the rest of the nation know that the city’s days of treating blacks as second-class citizens needed to end.
Attempting to quell the momentum, Birmingham issued an injunction barring further protests in the city. Two days later, on Good Friday, April 12 1963, King and a group of Birmingham Campaign supporters were arrested after they openly defied the injunction.
While in jail, King reflected on the slow pace of racial progress and placed the dire situation squarely at the feet of white moderates.
Southern white moderates: a sacred middle ground
Letter from Birmingham Jail was written in response to a Call For Unity, a public statement by eight white clergymen who acknowledged that American racism was wrong but argued that direct action – protest in the streets – was too extreme.
They favored a less confrontational strategy – one that took place in the courts, an approach they hoped would avoid inciting further hatred and violence on the part of white reactionaries.
King’s letter does a skillful job in unmasking this type of lukewarm moderate support for civil rights and recasts it as shortsighted, condescending and ultimately dangerous to the black freedom movement.
King is particularly critical of white moderates who disapprove of black anger while turning a blind eye to the circumstances responsible for the anger. He explains:
You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.
Expressing grave disappointment, King ultimately concludes,
the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.
Finally, the letter calls into question the tired refrain of “wait” for change, as moderates often believed blacks were impatient about the pace of progress.
In one of the most cited passages, King writes, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
Moderates occupied a sacred middle ground between the progressives and the reactionaries in the South, and King wanted their support.
He would not get it.
Southern reactionaries, led by Eugene (Bull) Connor, commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, feeling the ground shake beneath them, did not flinch in their defense of white supremacy.
Aided by the silence of southern moderates, the reactionary white establishment felt it had a green light to inflict harm on the black community.
With the world watching, they turned high-pressure fire hoses on black students, allowed police dogs to attack demonstrators and arrested over 1,000 nonviolent protesters.
The violent events in Birmingham were instrumental in showing an international and a domestic audience the ugly side of American racism.
Soon after, moderate whites beyond the South became a key force in drumming up support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
2015: moderate conservatives are still key
Fast forwarding to today, the racial climate is eerily similar to what we observed more than 50 years ago.
However, now it’s the entire country, not just the South, that is riven with racial violence.
This time around, as one of us together with Matt A Barreto show in our book Change They Can’t Believe In, it’s the Tea Party pushing a reactionary agenda. And, much like their forebears during Jim Crow, moderate conservatives, who are relatively progressive on race, refuse to assert themselves where race is concerned.
If David Brooks, who has castigated the Tea Party for their refusal to compromise and for having “no sense of moral decency,” represents the sentiments of moderate conservatives, it’s easy to see why race remains a problem in America.
Consider the following.
We analyzed data from the American National Election Study (2012) to investigate the distribution of reactionary relative to establishment conservatives among self-identified conservatives in the American electorate.
Our analysis indicates that approximately 22% of all conservatives identify strongly with the Tea Party. This means that approximately 78% of all conservatives are at least moderate.
But what do they say on race?
In his recent review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest book, Between the World and Me, in The New York Times, Brooks essentially rejects the notion that the racial animus that results in violence remains a problem when he writes,
I think you [Coates] distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s…a Harlem Children’s Zone for every KKK – and usually vastly more than one.
The effects of racism, in other words, at least these days, are mitigated by the opportunities this great country provides everyone. One way to read Brooks is that he is saying that race and racism are not as bad as Coates, and by extension, black folk, believe it is.
Similarly, John Boehner, speaker of the house and part of the conservative leadership, has downplayed racism – most recently in his response to Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments about Mexicans.
And while far too many moderate conservatives sit by, it is the reactionaries who commandeer the racial agenda with, for instance, their lionizing of George Zimmerman and their dismissal of protesters in Ferguson as “blacks out of control” and “aboriginals.”
We believe this nation is, as it was in the 1960s during the Birmingham Campaign, at a crossroads in race relations.
The reality on the ground is that blacks are dying at an alarming rate at the hands of agents of the state (law enforcement) as well as individual white citizens like George Zimmerman and Dylann Roof.
Combating such injustice will require moderate conservatives to take a bold stand.
We agree with King: moderates must not shrink in the presence of vocal white reactionaries or hide behind lofty color-blind rhetoric.
As King affirmed over 50 years ago,
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.