In Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” My contention is that we are witnessing a similar retrogression in the wake of the Second Reconstruction. Blacks are no longer in the back of the bus—indeed we’re in the White House!—but this has been manipulated, not to advance the cause of racial justice, but on the contrary, to camouflage the dismantling of affirmative action and antiracism policies generally….
WHAT BETTER EXAMPLE of counterrevolution than the passage of Voter ID laws that are nothing more than an incarnation of the poll tax and the grandfather clause — race neutral on their face but patently racist both in their intent and their impact. According to the Brennan Center, these laws will effectively disfranchise as many as 5 million voters, disproportionately black and Latino. Add to this another 6 million impacted by restrictions on felon’s voting rights. So disfranchisement is back. And that’s not all. Convict labor is back, implicating major corporations who have found a reserve army of cheap labor in the prison industrial complex. Back, too, are vagrancy laws in new guise. In New York City, that famed citadel of tolerance, last year there were nearly 800,000 stop-and-frisk searches, 87 percent involving blacks or Latinos. Indeed, so is lynching. What else was the Trayvon Martin case if not Emmett Till all over again—an official license and cover-up for killing a young black man who crossed the color line?
The seeds of counterrevolution were planted even before the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Laws, and came to early fruition in the 1968 election when Humphrey won only 10 percent of the white Southern vote. (Obama won 20 percent of the white vote in the Deep South, a grim measure of “progress.”) As social scientists say in their prosaic fashion, this marked the beginning of “a political realignment,” as the “Solid South” turned solidly Republican. But let’s be clear at what is involved here: “Negroes” were granted elementary rights of citizenship, and within a decade the entire South seceded from the Democratic Party! What was even more ominous was George Wallace’s unexpected traction with white voters in the urban North. The handwriting was on the wall: as Thomas Edsall and Mary Edsall wrote in Chain Reaction, the Republican Party would emerge as the party of segregation…. One figure speaks tons: 89 percent of Romney votes came from white non-Hispanics.
With Obama in the White House, Republicans can have it both ways. They shamelessly tap the reservoir of racism to discredit Obama, to deride national health insurance as “Obamacare,” tagging any social welfare policy as stealth reparations for blacks who exist as freeloaders on the public treasure, and now to unconscionably transgress democratic principle by restoring Jim Crow subterfuges to suppress black voting rights. At the same time, Republicans reap the advantage of having a President who puts a black face on neoliberalism at home and imperialism abroad.
Stephen Steinberg is Distinguished Professor of Urban Studies at Queens College & the Graduate Center, City University of New York. This is an excerpt of an article in the current issue of New Politics.