Outraged TV Audiences: The End of White Supremacy?

Writing for, or rather re-blogging for, the Huffington Post, Michael J. Klarman writes about “Why Little Rock was Important.”  He is a well-respected legal scholar on the civil rights movement and provides a thorough review of the events of fifty years ago in the post linked above.  In his last paragraph, Klarman offers the following analysis about why Little Rock was important:

“When such violence erupted — in places like Birmingham and Selma, Alabama — it outraged national television audiences. Newspapers called the violence ‘a national disgrace.’ Citizens voiced their ‘sense of unutterable outrage and shame’ and demanded that Congress take action to suppress such ‘barbarism and savagery.’ President John F. Kennedy went on national television to announce that civil rights were a ‘moral issue as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,’ and his administration introduced landmark civil rights legislation. It was the violence inspired by confrontations like the one in Little Rock that made such legislation possible. Ironically, the harder southern whites fought to maintain white supremacy, the more they seemed to accelerate its demise.”

I have to agree with the commentor there that goes by “SouthHouse” on HP who remarks on the “unintended irony” of Klarman’s assessment about the demise of white supremacy. And, indeed, there are some important elements of the story left out of Klarman’s account, like the fact that white supremacy didn’t end at Little Rock, but continues in forms that are both overt and institutionalized, as well as subtle and covert. I find it deeply ironic that given the current controversy Klarman didn’t address the issue in Jena. And, he also fails to mention the research which shows not only are schools more segregated now than they were fifty years ago, but that racial segregation is increasing.

I do think Klarman is right, however, when he says that the images from Little Rock, and later the images from Birmingham and Selma “outraged national television audiences.” This is true, people (and here, “national” is a euphemism for “white”) were outraged. This outrage, along with grief over President Kennedy’s death, is part of what made it possible to get the Civil Rights Act passed. Yet, there’s a disconnect in the collective consciousness of the nation. Somehow, this level of outrage at the images on the television screen rarely translates into steps that would effectively dismantle institutionalized white supremacy.


  1. J0e

    The comparison between the Little Rock 9 and the Jena 6 is a poignant one with interesting contradictions. I find Klarman’s omission of the Jena 6 prudent. The Little Rock 9 were thrown into a racial conflict that was bigger than them, they endured endless persecution and dehumanizing insults with transcendent dignity and honor. The contrast between the way they conducted themselves and the baseness of their persecutors is inspirational and a lesson in bravery and virtue. The Jena 6 got wrapped up in a racial conflict that was bigger than them and indeed were victimized by a racist legal system and bigoted prosecution but after handling themselves without honor in a despotic manner. They were not fighting in self-defense or in imminent danger. They were taking revenge on an ignorant kid who mocked one of them for being beat up by a white man. The racism and injustice in the prosecution is obvious but the rhetorical options for proponents of justice are not as clear. The average white person probably views the assault as brutal and deserving of punishment independent of the provocation (this anti-racist one certainly does). Cries for wholesale dismissal of the charges inspire cynicism among Whites and activates color blind racist perceptions that Blacks just want to use race to get off the hook (as unfair as this is). I believe the challenge for anti-racism today is to publicly engage such injustice on morally compelling grounds. This is extremely difficult when nihilism, as Cornel West describes it, is increasingly pervasive in minority communities as well as broader democratic thought in the U.S. In my opinion, public rhetoric around things like the Jena 6 should begin with concessions that the individual actors behaved immorally but when the legal system treats Black offenders more harshly than White offenders its actions are just as immoral and condemnable as those of the criminals that it prosecutes. Anti-racism needs to better communicate its message that color-blind racism is unjust, dishonest, and lacking moral character by appealing to the morals and democratic values of civic society and meeting publics where they are. This moral argument is adequately made in works such as Feagin’s Racist America but fails to translate into public debates when moral issues like the conduct of the Jena 6 are not adequately addressed in public forums and merely glossed over or swept under the rug.

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