Rescuing the “Racist Generation”: Texas School Board Standards

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.

A White Supremacist Century: Supreme Court as White Oligarchical Power

The recent Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission, which essentially forbids any restrictions on corporate financing of political candidates, has garnered much media attention this past week. Ostensibly, the ruling extends ridiculous precedents granting corporations status as persons and endowing them with accordant rights. Liberal commentators and politicians have rightly expressed outrage at the serious threat Citizens United poses to the last vestiges of American democracy. Most of the outrage has been on one or more of several grounds: Marxist/class-based, partisan, and/or politico-structural (i.e. how laws and the structure of federal and state governments will change as a consequence of corporate influence). Too little analysis has focused explicitly on the racial causes and implications of the ruling.

I believe the timing of this ruling is an intentional effort by white [male] elites to restore whites’ structural political advantages. For whites, Obama’s election and Latinos’ increased voting power threaten whites’ historical dominance. The ruling is designed to immediately weaken the currently ascendant political coalition of people of color and liberal whites. It is also sets the social, political, and economic conditions for whites to continue racial domination after they cease to be the numerical and electoral majority in the United States.

MSNBC noted the irony of the Supreme Courts’ ruling, which greatly empowers banks and other large financial institutions, coming down within hours of President Obama announcing proposals to reestablish limits on the nation’s largest banks. On its face, the timing of events appears to be either oddly coincidental or, more likely, the first shots in a war between two ruling sectors in the United States—the state and the capital class. But from a critical racial perspective, the Supreme Court ruling smacks of racism. Over the past three years, much was made about Obama’s ability to raise money through non-corporate vehicles. To be sure, he received much corporate support, but the rhetoric surrounding his campaign was a populist one, and the campaign greatly benefitted from “small” contributions from “regular people.” For the first time in many cycles, the Democratic candidate had a significant financial advantage over his Republican rivals. Obama effectively used that financial advantage to exhaust the resources of the McCain campaign. The Democrats held vulnerable territories without much challenge (e.g. Michigan) and won Republican-trending states (e.g. North Carolina and Virginia) via sustained (and expensive) media and grassroots efforts. This change in presidential campaign norms was all the more stunning given that it was done by the first Black candidate to lead the ticket of a major party.

Sociological research indicates that dominant groups (e.g. white policy-makers and Supreme Court justices) respond to threats (i.e. a Black man becoming chief executive) by using state institutions to weaken the threat and strengthen the dominant group. (See the introduction to the second edition of McAdam’s Political Process and the Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, for one of many examples.) The research seems to be especially applicable in this case. If Obama’s political strength comes, at least in part, from his advantage in non-corporate funding, allowing corporations to spend infinite dollars in support of oppositional candidates diffuses Obama as a political threat and greatly strengthens his opposition.

The racial elements are clear. Most obviously, as the first Black president, Obama represents a racialized threat to white power generally. (See Harvey-Winfield and Feagin 2009 for whites’ fears that Obama would serve Blacks’ economic and political interests.) Secondly, the Republican Party, which is the only electorally significant opposition to Obama and the Democrats, is increasingly a white, male party. Empowering corporations to financially prop up the shrinking party of, for, and by white men is an attempt to counter emerging electoral trends (e.g. the majority of each minority group voting for Obama and Democrats; the shrinking percentage of the voting population that is white and male) and promote white privilege. As the only branch of the federal government currently under direct control of white men, the Supreme Court is the best, if not only, tool available to immediately effect whites’ racial politics. That Republicans and big business have long been bed fellows only makes the Supreme Court’s strategy of “freeing” corporate funds a more certain path for achieving white elites’ racist goals. The potential of a split in the capitalist class (i.e. capitalists funding both parties equally) is precluded by the strong overlaps between whiteness, corporate leadership, and the Republican Party.

In short, the timing of the ruling seems to be obviously racially motivated. Democrats have ruled before, but the combination of Black and Brown leadership, increased Black and Brown voting activity, decreased white voting potential, and sufficient non-corporate funding pools for campaigns was a new threat to which whites were compelled to respond immediately. Whites’ desperation and determination to act now are revealed in their naked over-reaching in the case at hand. Section I of the official “syllabus” (i.e. summary of the case, written by the Reporter of Decisions) of United Citizens details the convoluted logic the Court used to justify both acting immediately and overreaching. The Court is explicit in arguing that they wanted to remove the restrictions on corporate funding before upcoming elections and that they wanted to ensure national impact. In the Syllabus, the Court’s political agenda is in the guise of protection of the First Amendment, but I have articulated reasons to believe the agenda is largely racial.

In my view, the Court’s ruling sets the stage for whites to continue their racist dominance after they lose majority status. Whites’ unjust enrichment (Feagin 2000) gives them a host of weapons with which to oppress people of color. Among the most potent of those weapons is liquid cash. Since Watergate, campaign laws have restricted corporate funding of candidates. Consequently, one of whites’ primary weapons was limited. The limitation was not crucial at the moment because 90 percent of the electorate was white (as of 1980). Therefore, whites’ control of government was unthreatened. However, the decrease in whites’ percentage of the electorate (now under 70%) places their continued electoral dominance in question.

The writing is on the wall for whites’ numerical majority. By and large, most Americans assume a one-to-one relationship between racial demographics and politico-economic dominance. I am constantly impressed by the consistency of undergraduates’ responses to demographic data. Often Latinos are encouraged and empowered by the data. In each of my research projects interviewing Latino students, almost all view their racial/ethnic group as the future dominant group in the U.S. In their version of the cohort effect, racism will “die out” as Latinos replace whites at the heads of major political and economic institutions. Whites usually respond with similar assumptions that their racial and social dominance depends entirely on their numbers. As their relative population falls, so too will their power (and vulnerability to charges of racism). Scholars vary on their takes, but some have adopted a tripartite model in which whites will continue to dominate by extending whiteness to include more groups and bestowing “honorary whiteness” on other groups. These two groups would then derive privileges by oppressing “collective Blacks” (e.g. African-descended peoples, Native Americans, and Southeast Asians).

I respond to all of these assumptions with my own prediction that whites’ primary strategy will be oligarchic in nature. Whites’ dominance of political, social, and economic institutions will far outlast their numerical majority. Whites will use their current majority to construct institutions in a way that ensures they can keep control even without majority status. From these powerful social locations, whites can continue to generate and reproduce a racial structure very similar to the contemporary one. White school boards and a disproportionately white academy will still control the content of education; white executives will still use formal and informal methods to reproduce economic inequality; whites will still have vested interests in segregated neighborhoods; whites will still use wars and other coercive tactics to exploit people of color’s land and labor. Just as the 13th amendment did not end slavery in practice, whites’ fall to plurality status will not change the racial status quo. Demographic majority status is not the basis of racial domination. Access to institutional power, material resources, and control of discourse are. Unleashing white executives to spend corporate dollars as they choose only serves to cement white people and white ideology at the levers of power in America.

So then, the Supreme Court’s decision has clear structural impacts that promote white supremacy for the foreseeable future. White executives will use corporate dollars to put in place laws, ideologies, and individuals to sustain the white supremacist status quo. These structural moves, however, will still take place in public arenas (e.g. elections, mass media). Consequently, whites will need justifications for taking their actions. They will have to convince the public to vote for their candidates and accept occasional visible legal changes. With these goals, white corporate executives will buy lots of ads and command much attention. What worries me is the probable content of those ads. American history teaches us that whites often use African Americans and other people of color as threats and scapegoats to justify oppression. Recently, the “welfare queen,” “crack baby,” and “Latin drug lord” were powerful images in the 1980s and 1990s that whites used to dismantle the social safety net for everyone. Whites have used images of hypersexual people of color (of all stripes) to justify everything from segregating “dangerous” Asian “sexual predators” to castrating and sterilizing Black men and women involuntarily (see Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body). Each of these projects, and innumerable others, served white elites’ corporate interests and were popularized via corporate actions and financial contributions. Whites are not finished with this type of business. Corporations will undoubtedly turn up the heat again and aggressively use racist imagery to motivate [white] masses to support corporate ends.

As people interested in racial justice, we must quickly consider how we can act now to address the serious racial threats white elites launched via the Supreme Court. Despite the electoral successes of 2008 and people of color’s growing electoral strength, we may currently be at the peak of our power to resist. With each passing day, whites are plotting ways to mobilize and use their considerable economic resources to reshape the government, influence our views, and frustrate all organized resistance efforts. Very soon, they will begin implementing those plans in earnest. Then we will have a very tough fight on our hands, indeed!

Celebrating MLK with Lessons from Obama’s Inauguration

A couple of articles have inspired me to add a brief word about this MLK Day. (See Boyce Watkins at Hopefully, my words are in keeping with both the spirit and beliefs of Dr. King himself.

A year ago this week, I joined nearly 3 million people in the nation’s capital for the inauguration of President Obama. The entire week, especially inauguration day, encapsulated much of what I understand about the “civil rights” movement and Dr. King’s legacy. Being a child of the 1980s, my understanding of Dr. King and the movement is a contested conglomeration of familial discussions, white-frame “civil rights” history, and independent study. Like most people my age, I may well be more in touch with the myth than the memory of King.

The morning of the inauguration seemed to mirror King’s 1963 march. The crowd came from all over the country and braved extreme temperatures (if on opposite ends of the thermometer) with grace and enthusiasm. The millions on the Mall that morning were very conscious of the parallels between contemporary and 1963 events. I saw hundreds of middle-aged and elderly African Americans making their way to the service. Everyone was so appreciative of their presence and sacrifices. I am convinced no Black person over age 60 would have had to so much as touch the ground with her own feet if she did not want. It was truly a remarkable and unforgettable moment.

The event itself was a reflection of what we were all celebrating. In name, we were witnessing a ceremony centered on one man, Barack Obama. In truth, we were actually there to culminate and celebrate a massive, multiracial, cross-coalitional effort that we hoped would produce meaningful and lasting institutional change. Everyone cheered the new president, but we all shared stories of sustained local efforts to mobilize America’s oppressed classes. The mass effort and happy gathering reflect the hopeful imagery and activist narrative associated with Dr. King.

After partying with friends (and strangers), I decided it was time to go home. On the edge of one of D.C.’s many Black neighborhoods, I found myself in need of a cab to get home. After a few blocks, I reached a busy corner and tried hailing a cab. Despite the festive occasion, I received the same treatment we Black men (and women) receive all the time. Cab after cab passed me by and quickly picked up white passengers.

A young white woman, whose name I still do not know, witnessed the entire scene. The hour growing very late at this point, she confidently approached me with a brilliant offer. If I would use my status as Black and male to safely escort her to the next corner where she was meeting some friends, she would use her status as a white female to get me a cab. I quickly agreed. Within 30 seconds of connecting her with her friends, the white woman told me to follow her to a cab. She said she would hail the cab and when the cabbie opened the door for her (a taken for granted response), I was to jump in. Local law, apparently, prevented cabbies from evicting passengers without cause. Needless to say, she executed the plan flawlessly and got me home without at hitch.

The past year, like inauguration day itself, is a microcosm of Dr. King’s life and legacy. Having won symbolic federal victories and peering briefly over the mountain at the potential for meaningful change. We forgot that these victories required massive mobilization and sustained multiracial, cross-class effort. Instead, we allowed white media to attribute the work to one man, and we left that man to carry it out virtually alone. In life, Dr. King never labored alone. But the mythological legacy recast him as a great man, producing systemic change through personal will and determination alone. That myth, now thrown onto Obama, has left Obama to labor alone (to the extent he actually wants to). Obama’s isolation is evidenced by the general failure of the DNC to remobilize the massive campaign volunteers in support of the president’s agenda (see NYT article “Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Grassroots” and The Washington Post’s “Obama’s Machine Sputters in Effort to Push Budget” for examples.

Part of the reason the multiracial grassroots effort “sputters” also parallels King’s life and legacy. Despite the rhetoric of the times, neither the day-to-day structure of the United States remained then and now. My anecdote about getting a cab makes the case for the moment of Obama’s inauguration. As Dr. Watkins’s points out, “Dr. King was very unpopular at the time of his death” as he tried to realize the goals outlined in his speeches. Whites never fully embraced King in life. Their support for his impotent corpse and white-framed memory would not convince Dr. King.

Obama’s situation is similar. As Harvey-Wingfield and Feagin (2010) document, the majority of whites voted against now President Obama. A recent article in The New York Times () documents whites’ increasing opposition to Obama:

According to an analysis of New York Times and CBS News polls, Obama has the lowest approval rating among whites at the end of his first year in office than any president in the 30 years that The Times and CBS News have collected such data. And the gap between Obama and the others is significant, ranging from 10 to 36 percentage points.

Like Israelites in the wilderness, whites dream of Egypt, a plurality saying Obama is a worse president than George W. Bush.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I hope and pray we will learn the lessons Dr. King taught us. Regardless of what the majority of people say, progressive American rhetoric remains miles ahead of its deeds (see King’s brilliant sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians”) and gradualism is not the answer. Only collective action, creative and sustained civil disobedience, and mobilization of people of color and poor–for whom cooptation and/or cessation are not viable options—are the only potential means for achieving and sustaining real and systemic change.