Permanent Black Man
America Might Not Be Far From Having Riots Of Its Own
...Before the Civil War, Americans primarily dealt with the issue of race relations under the rubric of slavery, and political bargains over slavery were one of the core issues in American politics. The Constitution itself was a complex compromise on slavery made possible in part by a widespread belief that economic development would make slavery obsolete throughout the country. When the cotton gin plus the industrial revolution made cotton the key to the manufacturing economy, slavery persisted and even grew; in 1820 and 1850 the original bargain was adjusted in the light of changing circumstances. But growing support of slavery by the increasingly powerful cotton interest in the South and growing opposition in the North doomed these bargains to failure. The Civil War transformed the slavery question into the modern race question: what would be the relationship of the two races once slavery disappeared?
The end of Reconstruction was in effect a new great compromise like those of the Constitution, 1820 and 1850. The Compromise of 1877 not only traded the election of Rutherford Hayes for the end of military occupation in the South; it abandoned the North’s effort to ensure equality for freed slaves in the South. The South gave up slavery and dreams of re-secession; the North abandoned efforts to regulate civil rights on a national rather than a state-by-state basis.
The series of post-Civil War compromises and arrangements that culminated in the Compromise of 1877 allowed the South to disarm Blacks (many Civil War veterans), deprive them of the vote, and install a system of racial segregation guarded both by law and mob violence. The mass of southern Blacks were kept uneducated and tied to the land; a small elite managed to get access to higher education and laid the foundations of the modern Black middle class.
By World War Two the Compromise of 1877 was showing its age. As in the Civil War, Black participation in the military led to demands for equality in civil life; desegregation of the military under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower challenged the racial hierarchies of 1877. The Black middle class became large enough, rich enough and savvy enough to fight segregation in the courts and on the ground, and less affluent Blacks were gradually becoming better educated (again some of this reflected their military experience) and better able to fight for their rights. The mechanization of southern agriculture sharply reduced the interest of southern farmers in maintaining the old sharecropping system that bound Blacks to the land; meanwhile, the growing presence of national companies and industries in the South created a demand for nationally standardized civil rights and labor practices. Racism was generally losing its hold on the American mind; fewer and fewer whites were comfortable with the hatred and contempt permeating traditional attitudes towards Blacks. Increasingly, even conservative evangelicals felt a tension between America’s traditional racial attitudes and the teachings of Scripture.
A generation of strife and negotiation led to what could be called the Compromise of 1976: a new basic understanding of the relationship between the races. Not only would the formal segregation be abolished; the Reconstruction program of the 1865-1876 era would be revived. The Civil War era constitutional amendments would be enforced; effective civil rights and voting rights legislation was passed and, unlike such laws in the past, the new ones were enforced. More, good faith efforts to overcome the effects of past discrimination would be made.
African Americans would benefit from affirmative actions in hiring and education and the actions of both government and private employers would be scrutinized to ensure that African Americans did not suffer “disproportionately” from tests or other factors in hiring policy. The construction and consolidation of a Black middle class became a priority for domestic social policy; minority set asides and greatly expanded government spending in urban areas were efforts to help this middle class grow. Elites launched a multi-generational effort to ensure that the American political and business elite contained more than a sprinkling of Black faces as the great educational institutions and others launched affirmative action programs that went well beyond those required by law. Together these efforts made up the Great Society racial settlement.
In its original, Great Society form, that settlement was not tenable. The public fears of undisciplined, violent or criminal Blacks (mostly in the form of adolescents and young men) were too strong to be ignored — especially after the urban riots of the late 1960s. Epidemics of violent crime alarmed everyone and threatened the vitality of major cities; the Great Society commitment of affirmative action was supplemented by a national crackdown on crime. Aggressive policing targeted primarily at minority youth combined with a harsh stiffening of criminal sentencing succeeded in controlling the crime wave at great human cost.
For “good Blacks”, education, opportunity and a road to the middle class. For “bad Blacks”, prison. This mix of policy is the racial system that we live with today. It is not without flaws but it also has many merits and is incomparably better than any of the earlier racial settlements we have had. Many of its goals have been achieved and most Americans, whatever their race, can be grateful to this settlement as far as it goes.
However, the Compromise of 1976 is now showing its age. The policies intended to build the Black middle class are collapsing in disarray. The housing meltdown wiped out much of the capital the Black middle class had managed to accumulate. Many of the employment opportunities that held the most promise to put more Blacks into the middle class are rapidly diminishing: federal, state and local governments (plus the Postal Service) will be retrenching and cutting wages for some time to come. Manufacturing will not be adding workers. Small, entrepreneurial businesses are often found in places like the exurbs where Blacks are relatively scarce and small, informal start ups tend to hire through the entrepreneurs’ social networks in which few Blacks may be found. Anti-discrimination laws work best at large, bureaucratic institutions: exactly the kind whose hiring rates are likely to slow.
Additionally, as austerity and the general crisis of the American middle class hit more non-Blacks, support for affirmative action will continue to wane. The bipartisan elite that has upheld the consensus for affirmative action, multicultural immigration and expanding entitlements since the 1960s is the prime target of the populist rage now shaking the country. If the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the White House after 2012, we could see some serious legal push back on some forms of affirmative action — and a few more court appointments could have the same impact. But that many whites are thinking about how to “sunset” affirmative action while many Blacks are worried about losing their hold on middle class living is not good.
It has been a long time since the two races had such fundamentally different appraisals of the country’s situation. Most whites, including even the liberal whites who have long been among Black America’s strongest non-Black advocates, believe things are going well.