For about a week now, the nation has been howling about the new standards the Texas Board of Education passed for social studies (including history, economics, civics) education. Because Texas controls so much of the textbook market, the standards Texas’ Board of Ed sets have near national influence. I do not want to go into a full critique of the standards. You can find that in many places (e.g. revisionaries , and the Examiner has a brief list). All of the changes promote conservatism by suggesting the US was founded as a Christian nation, claiming the superiority of capitalism, and teaching conservative politics positively (for example, one member explicitly states that his second criterion for history books is whether they sufficiently praise Ronald Reagan).
I believe a good portion of the conservatives’ curriculum battle is part of the larger white effort to rescue “the racist generation.” The racist generation is that generation of whites who were adults and/or came of age during the Black Civil Rights Movement (peaking 1950-1970). I call them the racist generation, not because that generation is/was any more racist than the generations of whites before or after them. That generation, born 1925-1955, is “the racist generation,” because that is how subsequent generations of whites have tacitly characterized them.
The argument goes like this: Whites who came of age after the CRM are desperate to present themselves as “non-racists.” They claim colorblindness and are terrified by the notion of being labeled racist. These whites admit that pre-CRM America was racist. Slavery and Jim Crow are obviously racist, and today’s whites cannot always shake their connection (ancestrally or as inheritors of the nation the “founding fathers” gave them) to pre-CRM white generations. But, young whites do not want to subject those previous generations to the ugly epithet of being racist. Therefore, they defend distant white generations (i.e. 1607 – 1925) as good people who were products of their time. “Ancient” whites weren’t “bad” (i.e. energetically racist) people; they were just born at a time when racism was the social norm. Therefore, ancient whites’ racism is excused. Similarly, post-CRM whites (born 1955-present) came of age too late to be responsible for fighting against the CRM. Post-CRM whites claim to be the vanguard of the post-racial era. They have no sins from which to be saved.
But “the racist generation” remains. Pictures of whites angrily initiating lynchings (warning: graphic), police dogs, anti-busing campaigns, anti-school integration, and assassinations testify to the consciousness and viciousness of the racist generation’s racism. Although post-CRM whites diminish the severity and frequency of pre-CRM racism, they cannot completely deny the history because acknowledging the racist past is essential to their claims of racial progression.
Necessary as it is to young whites’ self image, maintaining the racist generation is very painful to whites for several reasons. First, to paraphrase, the racist generation represents “Jim Crow unwilling to die.” Whites explain continuing findings of anti-black attitudes and discriminatory practices among whites by referencing a small collection of klan-like racists and the presence of an old racist generation. Whites claim that white racism will decline and eventually die as the elderly (i.e. the racist generation) passes away. In the meantime, old whites’ pre-CRM, non-colorblind language and attitudes bring these “ugly” things close to home. The racist generation also serves as a way for anti-racist people of color to defeat the claim that racism was too long ago to be relevant. The perpetrators are still alive.
But whites now want to rescue the racist generation from the racism critique. Now age 85-55, the racist generation is aging and passing away at increased rates. The post-CRM children of the racist generation wants to send their parents and grandparents off well and remember them as kind and loving, not vitriolic racists.
Consequently, a new project is underfoot to recast the racist generation as something…anything else. We saw a first effort when Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) tried to rescue arch-white supremacist, Strom Thurmond (R-SC) at a birthday celebration. But Thurmond (b. 1902) was too old and had too public a record of racism to be successfully redeemed by Lott. Now, the Texas Board of Education is attempting to rescue the racist generation by recasting history in a way that legitimates the racist generations’ racist perceptions and actions.
One of the most important changes the Texas Board of Ed made is inclusion of black militants’ rhetoric in history textbooks along side that of MLK. The obvious idea being that MLK’s nonviolence and soaring rhetoric cast the racist generation as unnecessarily violent and motivated only by aggressive racism. Including black militants is supposed to intimate that black civil rights activists were dangerous; the racist generations’ angry response was a reasonable reaction to the extremist threat. Related, the Board’s decision to defend McCarthyism by demanding that texts include findings documenting the presence of communists in the United States during the 1940s and 50s, many of whom were civil rights activists further legitimates the fears of the racist generation. The implication is that the racist generation really was under violent attack from clear enemies of America. Though unpopular, aggressive attempts to root them out, such as the methods McCarthy used, may be necessary. Finally, the Board’s requirement that textbooks thoroughly teach the conservative resurgence of the 1980s-2000s–including the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, Ronald Reagan, and contract with America–represents the restoration of the racist generation to the mainstream. Only now, it is sanitized of racism. Despite the fact that every part of the conservative resurgence had clear racist roots and purposes, which innumerable volumes document, the leaders of conservativism pioneered and popularized the currently dominant technique of doing racist actions via seemingly race neutral language and policies. Consequently, when whites define a racist as a person who uses explicitly racist words and has a public discrimination policy, the racist generation will no longer fit the description.
The Texas Board of Education is attempting to redeem the racist generation by redefining racism, recasting the black CRM as a dangerous movement, justifying the racist generations’ viciousness and legitimating its fears, and linking that generation to more familiar entities (e.g. Ronald Reagan, the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Right) who are unquestionably not racist in very young whites’ minds. In the end, the Texas Board of Ed not only redeems the racist generation, the Board resurrects it by restoring the racist generation to the larger narrative of progressive white goodness. The Board famously cut Thomas Jefferson from the approved list of 18th century visionaries because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” The Board argues that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, whose white and Christian leadership has steadily guided the nation toward national and international success. Each generation of white whites has progressively built on the morality and superiority of previous generations.
But the racist generation was a problem for the narrative of white goodness and benevolent supremacy. The emergence of an evil, racist generation in the middle of the nation’s history challenged the idea of steady progress. It also begged the questions: “Where did this racist generation come from? Did our founders lay the seeds for that generation the same as they laid for the good generations? And worst, if the narrative of benevolent, progressive white goodness/supremacy is not true, what kind of heritage is that for contemporary whites and what is their moral basis for racial domination (in outcome)?
By reshaping history in this particular way, the Texas Board of Ed undermines the racial critiques of the racial generation, puts the racist generation and future white generations back into the narrative of progressive white goodness, and permanently redeems the racist generation by ensuring that future generations will have no charges to levy at them. In the memory and spirit of the late Howard Zinn, we must recognize this moment and do all we can to tell the people’s true history.
Thanks for the post, Glenn. I especially like how your label “racist generation” at least implicitly challenges Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” specifically in regards to dealing with racism. It’s important for Brokaw and other whites to remember the precise reasoning for LBJ’s support for the civil rights legislation, not to mention ending slavery. Only once their values and/or interests (be they economic, social, etc) converge will they be supportive of such change. In fact, my area is not social movements, but the significance of violent conflict in getting whites to change should be acknowledged, as well as the nonviolent strategies as used by Dr. King and others. The example you refer to specifically bring the 1960s riots to mind, and how whites thought action was necessary to keep the sky from falling. Now, it seems we’re (scarily) on the verge of witnessing & experiencing what occurred in the 1910s and early 1920s: whites engaged in violent behavior. The tea baggers are just the beginning, I’m afraid.
Thanks for the comment, John. I thought about the “Greatest Generation” label while writing. That generation slightly overlaps with, and largely parented, “the racist generation.” Ironically, part of the honor of the Greatest Generation is that they fought a war specifically against racism (i.e. antisemitism). However, the greatest generation’s sins at home–both their own racism and their responsibility for raising the racist generation–seriously question the legitimacy of their “greatest” label and their anti-racist bona fides.
You’re right, John. Failing to rescue “the racist generation” imperils the reputation of “the greatest generation.” Brokaw’s label raises the stakes and makes the rescuing project all the more desperate.
Powerful analysis Glenn. Of course, the “racist generation” is useful, indeed necessary for contemporary whites efforts to point “backward” and delineate the boundary between the past (where racism was a problem) and today, a time defined by racial progress and even post-racial “arrival.” You acknowledge that, so then I wonder if we can continue fleshing out what the “rules” of the racial rescue game are. Does rescuing individuals take precedence over rescuing unnamed “blocs” of white racists? You suggest that because the project of rescuing individual whites is often near impossible (e.g., Lott’s failure to rescue Thurmond – which was not only a failure, but tainted him in the process), the goal will be to recast the era (e.g., through vilifying CRM by accenting black “militancy”) – seems to me, though, then we are back at point 1 – the need for a past racist generation. I’d be curious to hear your further thoughts.
Glenn, thought-provoking stuff here. I read your post several days ago and have been marinating on it. I haven’t completely sorted through my thoughts yet, but here’s a ramble.
It’s true that the post-CRM “colorblind” whites rely on a stark contrast with the racist past, but I don’t know that they really go so far as to implicate their own ancestors (grandparents and older forebears) as racist. In their short lifetimes, they’ve pretty much only seen their sweet or crotchety old family members as powerless and impotent and mostly unattached to society’s institutions (business, politics, etc.) So they may acknowledge that grandma can think and say some pretty racist things, but 1) grandma is old, and 2) grandma has no power over anyone. So they can conclude that her racism doesn’t matter now, and it probably didn’t matter in the past either. Especially if on top of that grandma tells them stories illustrating how she wasn’t racist, which if grandma tells her grandbabies any race-related stories, those are most certainly the ones she’s telling. Odds are too that those are the stories she’s been practicing and honing since the CRM era.
And, even if today’s “colorblind” whites (I feel the need to always put it in quotes) do admit that their white ancestors were racist, they can conceptualize it on an individual level and still fail to recognize or understand systemic racism. Especially if they aren’t taught the harsh realities of Jim Crow. (And slavery is so far in the past that its relevance is difficult to assert to today’s younger generations.) We can be pretty assured textbooks have never done this much for them. Remember too that our collective memory about legal segregation barely whispers of such institutional implications as economic discrimination, housing restrictions, political disenfranchisement, or police collusion with white supremacists. Our national memory simply tells us that segregated schools weren’t quite equal (integration fixed that) and that black folk sat at the back of the bus (so obviously fixed now – white people basically don’t even ride city buses anymore).
So, I guess what I’m arguing is that today’s “colorblind” whites do contrast themselves with racists, but those racists are mostly individuals – and they need not be older folks either or from any particular era. As Picca & Feagin’s work shows, college-age whites know damn well that many of their own friends are overtly racist – so these “colorbilnders” are contrasting themselves with their peers too.
I do think it would be interesting to interview “colorblinders” and try to get them to explain who they believe is racist and who is not – when racism was systemic or institutional (or maybe just ‘very common,’ if they sadly can’t conceive at all of systemic racism) and when exactly things began to change. My guess is that they might do two different things: 1) name the CRM as a major turning point, and 2) assert that white racism has fallen out of favor naturally and gradually and will continue to do so.
Nevertheless, I totally agree with you that contemporary whites do want to rescue the reputations of older whites by legitimating and rationalizing their staunch fight against racial progress. And the Texas Board of Ed move almost seems like it’s coming out of paranoia land, because textbooks have never been very honest to begin with. They’ve always sanitized white racism, completely ignored white privilege, and individualized everything.
Kristen and Jenni,
I think your comments speak to one another, so I’ll try to combine my response. I think the two issues/factors we need to add are: inconsistent rhetoric and (un)consciousness.
We all agree that millennials/”colorblind” whites need a “racist other” to compare themselves too. I suggested that The Racist Generation is their tool. Kristen suggests young whites use (un)known others, regardless of generation. Jenni asks how rescuing individuals/blocs plays into all this. Does rescuing deny whites the “racist other/past” necessary for their colorblind identity?
My answer is that we’re all right. To coin a phrase, based on “abstract liberalism,” I suggest whites use “abstract racism” as a means for handling all of the problems we’re talking about.
By “Abstract Racism,” I mean the white tendency to maintain a concept of a racist past/other that conceptualizes, reifies, and implicates a “racist generation” without populating that generation with particular individuals.
To “flesh out the rules” as Jenni asked, I still say whites are rescuing the racist generation. To incorporate Kristen’s insights, whites may not always see THEIR OWN grandfather as implicated. But they do implicate an unknown hoard of whites from grandpa’s generation. This “unknown hoard” is so abstract as to be fairytale-like. Unfortunately, this abstract generation (i.e. The Racist Generation) coexisted with grandpa. Consequently, history [unfairly] lumps grandpa in with this racist generation and denies him his proper place in the meta-narrative of progressive and benevolent white goodness/supremacy. This [unfair] circumstance (i.e. miss characterizing grandpa) necessitates taking steps to rescue the racist generation (i.e. as a collective) while keeping the idea of a racist past in tact.
In other words, whites want both narratives to be true at the same time: 1) there was a racist past in which whites, who were not as morally advanced as contemporary whites, were racist; 2) my family member existed during that time, but is not responsible for the racist era because s/he lacked the animus/power/significance/etc to do so.
3) contemporary whites need to rescue grandpa from this unfair characterization, which requires remaking the historical narrative about the racist time/generation.
1) Taken as a whole, what happens is that: A) “colorblind” whites construct an abstract racist other/generation against which to favorably compare themselves; B) this abstract racist other/generation does not include a particular white’s personal loved one, thus whites effectively rescue their own family members from “the racist generation” without threatening the concept; C) as all whites exempt their own family members, the aggregate effect is that “the racist generation” exists without any actual members; therefore D) whites retain a racist generation/past/other for comparison while denying contemporary people of color any tangible targets for redress.
In that way, INDIVIDUAL whites from The Racist Generation are rescued from direct accusation. But more work must be done to restore the narrative of progressive, benevolent white goodness/supremacy.
That work is necessary because all whites depend on the narrative to justify their racial privileges. An identifiable racist generation in the 20th century disrupts the narrative and threatens all whites’ self-identity and justifications of privilege. Therefore, whites rescue the COLLECTIVE racist generation by remaking history (i.e. the new school board regulations) in a way that makes the racist generation a progressive part of white history–redefined as people who took appropriate steps to “protect America” against illegitimate others/radicals and eventually won that battle, as evidenced by the Conservative Reemergence.
The combination of rescuing the racist generation by INDIVIDUALLY and COLLECTIVELY produces inconsistencies, as Jenni mentioned. Colorblind rhetoric is full of logical and discursive inconsistencies. Rescuing the racist generation from blame, while using it for colorblind discourse, is just another illustration of that point.
This duel project of rescuing the racist generation, both as individuals and as a collective, also incorporates Kristen’s critiques. It accounts for the “racial innocence” narratives families tell and the general ignorance whites have about institutional racism.
At the same time, the project demonstrates why whites are so emotionally invested and politically committed to the rescuing efforts evidenced by the Texas Board of Ed. Rescuing the Collective racist generation is necessary for the essential narrative of white supremacy that is at the core of white self-identity.
Much of this motivation–and the emotions under-girding it–lies beyond the realm of many whites’ consciousness at times. Quotes from the TBOE sessions and quotes from Two Faced Racism demonstrate that whites are very aware of continuing racism and their own racist motives sometimes. But that is not true all of the time. As Charles Lawrence, among many others, points out, white racism is often unconscious and we must account for that in our analysis and resistance strategies.
I would argue that the project of rescuing the racist generation depends, in large part, upon whites’ unconscious racism–e.g. emotional attachment to the supremacy narrative; lack of dissonance over the logical inconsistency of needing a “racist other” while systemically depopulating “the racist other.” The lack of dissonance is accomplished by assigning blame for past racism to a concept (the racist generation) that has no discernible membership. Whites effectively reify the racist generation as a concept, divest it of actual human membership, then invest it with dictatorial powers and responsibility for the racist past.
As I have said, the sum total is that whites rescue their loved ones (i.e. the racist generation) while maintaining a conceptual racist generation/past for “colorblind” comparison.
Know what I think? This is yet another backlash against an African American man in the Oval Office. Lest the younger generation get “too enamored” with the idea of multiculturalism, the Texas Board wants to put a halt to this “now we’re going Too Far” thinking. As I mentioned earlier textbooks were previously going in a multi-cultural direction for years. Slowly, but still traveling in that direction. Obama scared the white establishment. They feel compelled to fix it.
I think you are right that they are motivated in part by Obama’s inauguration. The current conditions allowed the TBOE to go this far, but I think the groundwork was laid long before Obama got on the scene. The Heritage Foundation, and the other parts of the conservative leadership the TBOE praises, laid out plan in the 1960s to get conservatives elected to school boards and make these kinds of changes. Because that political strategy took time–conservatives/evangelicals to politically organize and win a majority of seats–and textbook requirements are made very infrequently (I think it’s every decade), we are seeing the outcomes now. Ironically, Obama’s election simultaneously motivates the TBOE to be more extremist while convincing the white public that this extremism is nonthreatening.