Who’s kidding who? Setting the record straight on the political ancestry of modern American racism
“Why do you pick on Republicans so much? Don’t you know it was the Democrats who were the authors of Jim Crow?”
That’s one of the gripes my conservative correspondents frequently voice these days when I write about race and racism — especially when it comes to barbs directed at GOP leaders over racially charged policy decisions like making it harder to vote, punishing protesters, or denying access to healthcare.
It’s an interesting argument, though more for what it says about the people voicing it than for its substance.
When it comes to the latter, there is no real debate about the crisscrossing stances America’s two major political parties have taken over the last century and a half. For most of the first 100 years that followed the Civil War, it’s undeniable that the Democratic Party – and, most blatantly, its powerful southern branch – was the party of racism and white supremacy.
In contrast, the Republican Party – the party of Lincoln – was, despite its own myriad racial challenges, the institution to which most Black Americans rightfully felt the greatest allegiance.
This all changed, however, during the middle decades of the 20th century. President Lyndon Johnson’s famous/infamous lament upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he had, in so doing, “lost the South [to Republicans] for a generation” was a seminal moment in the transition, but hardly the last. Liberal Black Republicans and conservative racist Democrats (often referred to as “Jesse-crats” in North Carolina because of their loyalty to Republican Jesse Helms) remained a part of the political scene for at least a few more decades.
Today, however, the transition is complete. Denizens of the political right can pontificate all they want about “racist” gun control laws and the supposed benefits to people of color from “school choice” and the resegregation it inevitably spurs. But when Donald “very fine people on both sides” Trump is a party’s standard bearer and when a state lawmaker, Rep. Larry Pittman, publicly likens Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, yet is retained as a member, there can be little doubt about the party in which the white supremacist Democrats of the Jim Crow era would feel most at home.
In regard to matters of race, the modern identities and ancestries of the two major U.S. parties is not seriously in question. The more interesting discussion involves the denial in which those who cling to the “Democrats and liberals are the racists” argument engage.
On the one hand, it’s encouraging that many conservatives at least voice opposition to racism. At a time in which overt white supremacy and hate have reared their grotesque faces in so many places, one takes a measure of solace from the fact that many conservatives reject them – at least in words, if not in deeds.
That said, there is a hard and underappreciated truth about race in modern America – the recognition of which (and lack thereof) increasingly serves as a dividing line in our politics. Simply put, colorblindness is an illusion.
Many white Americans (and even a few people of color) like to imagine that the end of de jure segregation and the advent of facially race-neutral laws have somehow wiped the national slate clean. But this is, in truth, a fantasy.
Indeed, as Ronda Taylor Bullock, the executive director of the Durham-based nonprofit education group WeAre explained persuasively in a recent Policy Watch interview, colorblindness with respect to race is not only impossible, it’s not even helpful or desirable.
Becoming a true opponent of racism – an antiracist – she argues, is not something one simply declares oneself to have accomplished or achieves in a few easy steps. Rather, working to repair the damage caused by centuries of racism and building true bridges of connection and community is a constant struggle of awareness and more akin to a way of being.
The same is true, of course, for society writ large. In a nation in which, among other things, official federal government “redlining” policy intentionally deprived millions of households of color of billions upon billions of dollars in family wealth over the better part of the last 90 years, the notion that systemic racism and its toxic legacy have been eradicated and need no additional remedial action is preposterous.
The sad bottom line: Sixty-plus years ago when southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond used the filibuster to block voting rights legislation, few Americans had any doubts about what their objective was. Today, when the party to which Thurmond dedicated the last 39 years of his life uses the exact same tactic for precisely the same purpose, it strains credulity to imagine that the objective has somehow been rendered pure – regardless of the delusions to which some of Thurmond’s descendants might cling.
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