Civil Rights: Revolution or Counterrevolution?

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.


  1. parvenu

    While I enjoyed your presentation of the eternal racial divide in America in the terms of revolution versus counter-revolution, I feel that this particular frame work tends to obscure the extreme persistent complexity of the problem. From my perspective the two sociological phenomenona that are the cornerstones of racism in America are:(1)institutionalized slavery of African natives in this land, and (2) the permanent American colonial concept of granting the unquestioned extension of privilege in all matters exclusively to its white residents (commonly known as “white privilege”). The end results of our nation experience with every notable event in its long and adventurous history has been constantly “colored” by the dominate presence of these two sociological phenomena, silently twisting and influencing the perceived valuation of each historical event.

    From the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s shipbuilding industry in New Bedford Massachusetts designed to support the “Triangle Trade” economy of the times, to the heavy handed demands of the southern plantation owners upon the redactors of the Constitution of the United States, to the Congressional opposition to unreserved recognition of the full authority of America’s first African American President of the United States; the Legacy Attributes of Negro slavery coupled with unquestioned “white privilege” always seem to emerge as the most significant controlling factors in American history.

    In my opinion the success of all counter-revolutionary moves are desperately needed to assure the major segment of the American population that these two social phenomena are still well preserved and fully operational in American society. In this instance the appearance of counter-revolutionary pressures are mainly a function of the psychology of the “masses”, rather than being exclusively attributable to expedient political strategy.

  2. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To Parvenu:

    I like your notion of “the eternal racial divide,” and I agree with your basic position about the structural and historical foundation of white supremacy, and the complicity of the state in its genesis and reproduction.

    However, I take issue with your closing comment–that “counter-revolutionary pressures are mainly a function of the psychology of the ‘masses,’ rather than being exclusively attributable to expedient political strategy.” How can you say that when the Republican Party pinned its electoral hopes on overt and covert racism, appealing to whites who, as you perhaps imply, are incensed at the chinks in the armor of white supremacy, best represented by our “first black President”?

    Besides, most of the substance of this counterrevolution does not spring from some vague “psychology of the masses,” but involve the state itself: in suppressing black votes, in enacting laws and sentencing policies that result in mass incarceration, in legislating felon disfranchisement, in enacting policies that blow up public housing across the nation, in ripping up the safety net, in using the power of the state to relegate another generation of black youth to debasing poverty and unemployment. All while the two parties vie to be “the party of the working class.”

    The state is implicated in today’s racism as much as were our founding fathers who wrote slavery into the Constitution and laid the foundation for “the eternal racial divide.”

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