Now and then I encounter a person who objects to any discussion of racial injustice on the grounds that we settled all of that years ago. We don’t keep slaves, so why bring it up? We got rid of segregation and so have no reason for further discussion. A black president means we have achieved racial equality. One who raises such issues despite all that, we must assume, wishes to distract from some other and more important concern. Maybe the speaker just has it in for white people. Maybe the speaker doesn’t understand just how deep the moral rot runs in black America. I wish I had to invent these examples, but any time an outbreak of white supremacy hits the news people bring them down from the attic.
The desire to close the book on past injustices requires little explanation. They shock our consciences and cause us distress. Who wants more of that? Thus we don’t want to see the same things happen again and again. But we feel our own pain most intimately and intensely. That doesn’t make us horrible people, but can distract us from the greater suffering of the victims. The sins of the American past thus become largely objects of discomfort for white Americans, a species of impoliteness rather than often grievous wrongs done to others.
Wishing things ended does not end them. Every divisive issue has its partisans. Every resolution of the same will have its share of losers. As unimportant issues rarely become divisive, one cannot reasonably expect that the side which lost one round will just go home. Instead they come back and try to reverse their past loss outright or achieving their preferred ends by other means. White southerners rushed to reinstate slavery after the Civil War. They didn’t succeed perfectly, but through Jim Crow, terrorism, and the criminal justice system they managed to reverse almost all of the gains that black Americans made during the war and Reconstruction. When the law turned against Jim Crow, American whites all over the nation answered the challenge by segregating their neighborhoods. The Supreme Court eventually decided, in a case brought by my native Michigan, that so long as local ordinances didn’t say “whites only” in a large font at the top of each page, then segregation could remain.
So it has. This has, by design, many obvious effects. White Americans fled from neighborhoods that had integrated or looked poised to. They took their greater wealth with them, leaving behind a shrinking tax base on which other Americans had to rely to educate their children. They abandoned, or privatized public spaces so they could control what race of people gained access. Across the South this involved closing down entire public school districts rather than integrate. Public pools closed down or turned private:
As African Americans fought for desegregation in the 1950s, public pools became frequent battlefields. In Marshall, Texas, for example, in 1957, a young man backed by the NAACP sued to force the integration of a brand-new swimming pool. When the judge made it clear the city would lose, citizens voted 1,758-89 to have the city sell all of its recreational facilities rather than integrate them. The pool was sold to a local Lions’ Club, which was able to operate it as a whites-only private facility.
The decisions of other communities were rarely so transparent, but the trend was unmistakable. Before 1950, Americans went swimming as often as they went to the movies, but they did so in public pools. There were relatively few club pools, and private pools were markers of extraordinary wealth. Over the next half-century, though, the number of private in-ground pools increased from roughly 2,500 to more than four million. The declining cost of pool construction, improved technology, and suburbanization all played important roles. But then, so did desegregation.
Did that end segregation? It might in an extremely constrained, legal sense do so. A private group could segregate and white Americans demanded that they did. Jim Crow ended, so far as whites cared. Black Americans, by design, had a different experience. Some things have changed, but others have not. Take the case of McKinney, Texas, which produced the article quoted previously:
In 2009, McKinney was forced to settle a lawsuit alleging that it was blocking the development of affordable housing suitable for tenants with Section 8 vouchers in the more affluent western portion of the city. East of Highway 75, according to the lawsuit, McKinney is 49 percent white; to its west, McKinney is 86 percent white. The plaintiffs alleged that the city and its housing authority were “willing to negotiate for and provide low-income housing units in east McKinney, but not west McKinney, which amounts to illegal racial steering.”
We have conquered segregation. No more do we have men throw acid into pools to demonstrate what sort of welcome black swimmers deserve. Now we have the police respond to the peril of the black swimmer as though a riot erupted:
They had gone to a private pool, after all. They had it coming even if some of their parents helped pay for that pool’s upkeep and others came as guests. Their skin marked them as outsiders.
We have come a long way. Bull Connor used attack dogs and fire hoses. His police department arrested more than nine hundred children. Now we have traded down to simply drawing guns on children. For this and the elimination of the legal form of Jim Crow, we deserve all the accolades we choose to award ourselves. As we should concern ourselves with racial injustice only so far as doing so demonstrates white virtue, like good nineteenth century Americans, we have done all that we can ask ourselves. Should that leave the reality of segregation in place, in some ways more present now than in decades past, so what? We cleared our consciences and so done our job.
If one gets right down to it, none of us actually endorse the rough edges of the system. Mistakes happen. People get hurt. But we don’t set out to hurt them, except by denying them the kinds of lives we prefer. When an injustice like the police riot at McKinney hits the news today, we all contemplate our navels and feel very sorry. Or do we?
Signs appeared thanking the McKinney Police. The wrong color of people had gotten into the pool despite all their efforts to prevent it. What could they have thought? That they deserved to be treated like whites? A fourth grade teacher weighed in on the matter:
“I’m going to just go ahead and say it … the blacks are the ones causing the problems and this ‘racial tension,’” Fitzgibbons said. “I guess that’s what happens when you flunk out of school and have no education. I’m sure their parents are just as guilty for not knowing what their kids were doing; or knew it and didn’t care.”
“I’m almost to the point of wanting them all segregated on one side of town so they can hurt each other and leave the innocent people alone,” Fitzgibbons said. “Maybe the 50s and 60s were really on to something. Now, let the bashing of my true and honest opinion begin….GO!”
Posted with the hash tag #notracist. Literally. I don’t know what it would take for her to call someone a racist. Would participating in a lynching be enough or would she demand to know that the lynch mob had no “good reason”. The victim could have smiled at a white woman.
We can keep telling ourselves that we whipped racism or we could actually do so. That would mean an end to all the advantages that white Americans have over black Americans, which we stole fair and square just as we stole the land from the Indians. It would mean an America where we could look at, among other things, economic statistics and see no difference between black and white Americans.
Yet we almost always take the easier route, defining racism in narrow and antiseptic terms that have precious little to do with its actual operation. No law of nature makes us do so, but we have little trouble inventing some. Black people just behave a certain way; “everybody” knows it. This doesn’t count as racist. Where one lives can’t come from any racist sentiment. We declared as much and that settles things. We beat racism in 1865 or 1954 or 1965 or 2008. Any year will do, so long as we put it in the past and don’t trouble ourselves with more than the most superficial examination of events.
The past tense means things happened before. At least implicitly, they don’t reach up into the ever-moving present. They don’t implicate us; we remain virtuous. We take pains not to know how other Americans live and when reminded of it blame them for disturbing our tranquility. I submit that this is as racist as shooting an unarmed black man or storming a pool party as though it were an insurrection. Racism lacks a dress code: one not wear a sheet, a brown shirt, or wave a Confederate flag to join in. The callous indifference, however cloaked in lectures about character, fatherhood, or whatever trope one prefers, produces the horrors. They come not despite white America’s indifference, to say nothing of tolerance and support, but because and as natural outgrowths of it. If we really want to put racial injustice into the past, we have it in us to make the change. We still segregate. We still terrorize. The means of white supremacy have changed but largely not the practice or substance. We replace slavery with Jim Crow and convict leasing. We replaced Jim Crow with privatized space and mass incarceration. We could devote that creative energy to doing the opposite instead of proclaiming each incremental, contested, and often reversed gain as the end of it all.
Why don’t we, unless we have not closed the book on racism but rather want it kept alive? We may not close that book tomorrow, next year, or next decade. It may outlive all reading this. Few chastened for their support of white supremacy will change their minds. They will take their defeats and find in them the seeds of new victories. But that doesn’t mean that we do all we can any more than it means we should give up. They only win forever if they go unopposed. That choice falls on us. Do we want more McKinneys, Trayvon Martins, Eric Garners, and Emmett Tills or do we want something else? When can we honestly call it over and done with?