2017 by way of 1965

Gentle Readers, I’ve thought quite a bit about whether or not to continue with Modern Mondays. In the past I’ve sometimes had trouble finding an adequately modern event with historical resonance to write about and struggled to write about those I do find in new ways, failing often. The horror that stars in our news for at least the next four years suggests no shortage of incidents to come, which forms part of the problem. I come here to write history, if history I consider relevant to our present circumstances. For all that I wear my politics on my sleeve, I did not set out to write a political blog. I don’t know how often I will keep this up, but here we are.

A white supremacist with the apt name Jefferson Beauregard Sessions will soon lead the Cabinet department responsible for, and founded for the express purpose of, defending the civil rights of African-Americans. People don’t have to take an example from the names their parents chose; this Jefferson could have done better. The brief era when people took the Justice Department’s mission seriously will come to a close just as it has before. We may all be long dead before such a time comes again, if it ever does.

History has no arc and it will not bend toward justice. People bend history. We made this world as we made all the others, with the choices that fill our days. We could unmake it too, if enough of us move in the right direction. That happens, sometimes. When the world tilts our way we call it justice. When it doesn’t, we have to explain it. We can tell ourselves that we just lost that one on a fluke, that something outside the system intervened, or the ill-starred moment just came and no one could do anything.

Everyone has stories. Jeff Sessions will tell you he stood up for civil rights. He will not tell you that he did so by prosecuting people who tried to register black voters. He will tell you that he doesn’t believe in racism, in segregation, that he opposes white supremacy in all its forms. He will not remind you that the Republican Senate found him too racist to give a job on the federal bench to back in in the Eighties. The Republican Senate of the two thousand tens will confirm him and congratulate themselves for all the work he will do ensuring black Americans find it harder and harder to vote. The other side bends history too; they win at least half the time.

Sessions will become Attorney General. We can’t stop it, but we don’t have to go quietly along. Sessions presently represents Alabama in the United States Senate, and by Alabama I must say that I mean the white Alabama of 2016, by way of 1965. White Alabamans knew what they wanted back then: black Americans should not vote, should not protest, should not do anything that made them look like citizens of the United States. They should instead remain, if not chattel, then as close to it as one could feasibly manage. Some whites disagreed with the racial order, even if it did put them on top, but they had a century to alter it and had not found the will or numbers to bend that arc of history.

When American citizens, allegedly as equal and good as your or I, marched to protest Alabama denying their right to vote, the Sheriff of Dallas County called out every white man in his jurisdiction and deputized them. One does this to answer an invading army or a revolution, which came that day in the form of nonviolent protesters walking down a public road. The police told them to stop and go home. They paused, prayed, and the police descended on them with teargas. Some, mounted, rode into the crowd with billy clubs.

We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.

I don’t know how Jefferson Sessions, nineteen that year, spent that day; I suspect he spent it at university. John Lewis, twenty-five, stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, leading the protesters. Those are his words above. They fractured his skull. He remained with the protest and delivered a speech before seeking treatment. Since 1997, when Sessions claimed his Senate seat, both men have served in the United States Congress. No one needed to tell John Lewis where his old enemy had risen up again. This past week he testified against Sessions’ nomination:

I advise against reading the Youtube comments, Gentle Readers.

I hold to the school that we ought not make people into heroes, as we must revise and edit them past any hope of honesty to turn a person into perfection. For the same reasons, we should not name anyone the conscience of a nation. Everyone has faults, blind spots, contains contradictions. But if we conceive of the United States as a nation of justice and freedom, I don’t know many people living today who have done better at holding the country to those ideals and living them out, broken bones, bruised flesh, and all. If being a good American means the things we so often say it means, we must count Lewis one of the best.

Our questionably-coiffed president-elect, the man who got millions less votes in the election of 2016, must have had his TV on just then. He informed the world via Twitter

You understand the thought process, Gentle Readers. He saw a black man on his television. That must mean poverty and crime, because he has worked hard all his life to ensure just that. For Lewis to represent a large section of Atlanta, which seems to do well enough, would mean that Trump and all the others that update their wardrobe in the bedclothes aisle had failed. It would confront them with black Americans as capable, not merely of good leadership but of anything at all. They could not endure such a tragedy and so will go to heroic lengths to prevent it, like losing an election by more than two million votes and calling it a landslide. Or naming Jefferson Sessions Attorney General.

I have not studied Lewis’ career in Congress, but I don’t doubt he’s had his share of frustrations and disappointments. The latest probably began late on election night. But he’s gotten results too. The broken bones of he and his fellow protesters, coming to them through the television in fuzzy black and white, drove a profoundly white supremacist nation to briefly decide it could be something better. The Voting Rights Act, now teetering on the edge of oblivion, came out of it. That could not stand. Millions of white Americans would not tolerate any such thing and embarked on a decades-long campaign to restore Jim Crow and take it fully national. White supremacy won the White House, despite losing the vote, back in November just as it has previous Novembers when Richard Nixon promised “law and order” (break skulls) and Ronald Reagan declared for state’s rights (the right to murder civil rights activists without federal interference). We have come this way before. We shall again. Departures stand out because we see them so seldom.

Every time a storm hits Washington, you don’t have to go far to find photographs of the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns. They come with injunctions to respect the steadfast commitment of these men and women to their duty. That, we believe, says something about us and the kind of nation we have. Maybe it does; I am no connoisseur of martial virtues. Fifty-seven years on, it seems we still stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge too. Now, just as then, both sides have a large cheering section as the teargas flies and bones break. That says more.

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How to Steal An Election

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Gentle Readers, you don’t have to poke around the internet for long to find people very concerned about vote fraud. They believe that it taints our elections, undermines the legitimacy of our democracy, and just coincidentally results in their preferred candidates losing. As a person who studies Bleeding Kansas, where vote fraud absolutely took place, I know a bit about it. So let me tell you how to steal an election, nineteenth century style.

It does no good to only steal an election a little bit. You have to go large if you want to purloin the polls. Contrary to what they might tell you in Government class, one vote almost never decides any election of consequence. Just how many people you need depends on the size of the local electorate, but you can’t know the actual number until the time comes. A prudent thief will plan for that. You want the difference between the votes necessary to win and the votes you expect to get from people who would side with you fair and square, plus a buffer. Almost anywhere this side of small town local government posts, this will kick the number into the thousands.

There are no photo IDs or standardized forms of identification in the middle nineteenth century. They had poll books with lists of qualified voters. You would go up to the window on election day and tell your name. They would check the list, find you, and accept your ballot. But people do get missed by the census, more into the jurisdiction after it, and so forth. If you wanted to vote anyway, they would let you if you could convince them that you had a right to. That could mean just having an election worker vouch for you from personal knowledge or that you swore an oath that you had a legal right to vote there. Either way you get to cast your ballot. If you’ve voted recently, some of this probably sounds familiar. When I started, my precinct had printouts on computer paper with the perforated edges still on. Now it’s on a laptop.

So you, my dear enemy of democracy, must get together at minimum hundreds and ideally a few thousand people. They need to go to the polls. As they could vote legally if they lived in the area, they’ve got to cover some distance. Moving that many people in for election day doesn’t go unnoticed. When they appear, they will all have to swear oaths or carry off pretty good lies to convince election workers to take their illegal votes. This makes them more conspicuous still. Even in Kansas, just having its very first elections, everybody, their kids, their household pets, the local wildlife, and probably the more perceptive trees spotted that a mile off. You just can’t hide it at all. You might get away with a few votes, or even a few dozen, but not enough to make the whole effort worthwhile. All that work also requires coordination and communication that put up further signs still. You could see this all from space. The Howard Committee found it all out from numerous sources in the summer of 1856.

Today we have somewhat more robust identification systems, but the essentials haven’t changed that much. Though we might miss the coordination of a fraud operation thanks to the privacy of email and phone calls, many someones still have to show up and cast all those votes. Privacy goes right out the window then and, by the act’s inherent nature, everyone gets to see.

This happens near to never. However often Americans might think someone swipes an election, confessions of the deed happen with roughly the same frequency as claims of alien abduction. A conspiracy skilled enough to manage a fraud on the necessary scale without anybody noticing would already have the skills necessary to seize the government by far more subtle means.

With the exception of the Kansas-specific details, I can’t have told anybody anything they didn’t already know. If you understand what the words mean, and how to count, you have it down. As a practical matter, most everybody of voting age gets it.

But there’s another way to steal an election: make it hard to vote. Study up on what your opponent’s constituencies can do. If they must work long hours, ensure that not enough polling stations exist to serve the likely demand. If they have trouble getting around, locate the polls somewhere far from anywhere they’d normally go. Or just go full-on Jim Crow with it. Since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, states have fallen over themselves to do just that. Unsurprisingly, not all have gotten on board. In one of the most predictable developments in American history, the states looking to steal elections by way of denying legal voters their right have focused on non-white voters.

Everybody knows that too, but often enough courts have played dumb to the fact in just the same way they did when Jim Crow got off the ground in the first place. Restrictions that place an uneven burden on the poor and minorities but appear ostensibly neutral or dedicated to an acceptable end, like preventing voter fraud, go up. It becomes instantly, these days, gauche to point out just how they operate or what their architects intended.

But sometimes the real election thieves leave their burglar’s tools out where anybody with a subpoena could find them. North Carolina did that (PDF):

the State argued before the district court that the General Assembly enacted changes to early voting laws to avoid “political gamesmanship” with respect to the hours and locations of early voting centers. As “evidence of justifications” for the changes to early voting, the State offered purported inconsistencies in voting hours across counties, including the fact that only some counties had decided to offer Sunday voting. The State then elaborated on its justification, explaining that “[c]ounties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.” In response, SL 2013-381 did away with one of the two days of Sunday voting.  Thus, in what comes as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race — specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.

If you want to really steal an election, and make sure it sticks, you steal it before the polls open. White Americans have known this for a very long time. The Klan operated on the theory, true enough, that a dead man would cast no vote. The North Carolina Republican Party, fallen as far as it can from the days of Lincoln, chose different methods than the Klan. We might count that as progress, but the lynchers wearing sheets only ever constituted the paramilitary and terrorist arm of the movement.

Don’t take my word for it:

Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans.

The North Carolina General Assembly didn’t accidentally work to disenfranchise the black Americans it purports to represent. They did their homework and made damned sure to do just what they meant, leaving a copious paper trail along the way:

prior to and during the limited debate on the expanded omnibus bill, members of the General Assembly requested and received a breakdown by race of DMV-issued ID ownership, absentee voting, early voting, same-day registration, and provisional voting (which includes out-of precinct voting). This data revealed that African Americans disproportionately used early voting, same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting, and disproportionately lacked DMV-issued ID. Not only that, it also revealed that African Americans did not disproportionately use absentee voting; whites did. SL 2013-381 drastically restricted all of these other forms of access to the franchise, but exempted absentee voting from the photo ID requirement.

freedmen votesThe legislators knew what kinds of identification African-Americans held in greater numbers than whites did and systematically removed those from the list of things you could use to prove your bona fides for voting. It doesn’t say, in so many words, that the polling place would operate as a whites-only establishment. Maybe, as we live in a fallen world, come black people would still cast votes. But they clearly intended to do all they could:

In sum, relying on this racial data, the General Assembly enacted legislation restricting all — and only — practices disproportionately used by African Americans.

The appeals court caught North Carolina out and struck down the laws, just as courts have done similar for in other states. But courts need not always do so; they have played dumb before in defense of white power. They surely shall again. What does one call a political organization which, as a matter deliberate policy, seeks out and enacts methods to ensure as few black Americans vote as it can possibly manage? It cannot be any less than white supremacist.

We all knew that already too. We pretend otherwise often enough, but I have told no deep secrets today. Every politically aware American knows that black Americans vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats and against the Republicans. To explain that we either need to pretend they can’t make their own political decisions and so are fooled by the Democratic party, in itself a claim solidly on the side of white power through its embrace of racial theories of intelligence, or we need to admit the truth. If we do the latter, we have to confront what that says about us.

King, Stone Mountain, and the Pablum Past

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

If you go down to Georgia you can see the kind of landmark that traditionally gets Americans excited. We have the biggest bas-relief in the world carved into the north face of Stone Mountain. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have seen some of the artist’s other work. From the park viewing platform, Mt. Rushmore makes an impression. I imagine that the carving on Stone Mountain does as well, what with Stonewall Jackson, Robert Lee, and Jefferson Davis all on horseback with hats over their hearts. Both carvings depict small pantheons, great men worthy of having their memory literally etched in stone. A reasonable person looking at both would understand that the monuments communicate just that: the creators found them so important that they went people for centuries hence to know and admire them. To look upon their works, take them as your example, and live according to their values, would ennoble and elevate you and your society. To forget them would lesson us immeasurably. One does not, after all, carve people one considers unimportant or unpleasant into the side of a mountain.

Stone Mountain has not avoided the criticism that other such monuments have faced in the months since the Charleston shooting. Nor should it, given both its prominence and the fact that the second Ku Klux Klan first met there. Its massive size, however, renders some of the reasonable remedies impractical. We cannot relocate the carving to a museum. Nor does it seem likely that we shall manage some kind of contextualizing display of similar prominence. Sandblasting it away sounds reasonable, but unlikely to happen. What could the state of Georgia do, blast out the other side of the mountain and carve a giant bust of Frederick Douglass? Not exactly. Douglass had very little to do with Georgia, just like the three Confederates, but the state does have a worthy equivalent in Martin Luther King, Jr. The state thus proposes

On the summit of Stone Mountain, yards away from where Ku Klux Klansmen once burned giant crosses, just above and beyond the behemoth carving of three Confederate heroes, state authorities have agreed to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Specifically, an elevated tower — featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell — would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

When I first heard this, I thought it a step in the right direction. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, of license plate fame, came out with an unintentional endorsement:

This decision by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association is wholly inappropriate in that it is an intentional act of disrespect toward the stated purpose of the Stone Mountain memorial from its inception as well as a possible violation of the law which established the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and charged it with promoting the mountain as a Confederate memorial.

An intentional act of disrespect towards celebration of the Confederacy sounds pretty good to me. The SCV continues:

The erection of monuments to anyone other than Confederate heroes in Stone Mountain Park is in contradistinction to the purpose for which the park exists and would make it a memorial to something different.  The park was never intended to be a memorial to multiple causes but solely to the Confederacy.  Therefore, monuments to either Michael King or soldiers of any color who fought against the Confederacy would be a violation of the purpose for which the park was created and exists. The opinions of the park’s current neighbors and opponents are of no bearing in the discussion.

This requires a small bit of unpacking. I understand that the environs of the park have undergone a demographic shift since the carving. Maybe once upon a time they could boast of the kind of whiteness you would expect of the local Klavern. Given regular Klan rallies took place on the mountain into the 1950s, that could make for less a metaphor than literal truth. Now the neighborhoods that Jackson, Lee, and Davis oversee have a black majority. If that makes pilgrimages to the site by the SCV a bit uncomfortable, they could console themselves with the fact that the mountain preserved in its own way a vision of white control that they appear to value greatly. Black opinions don’t count.

The reference to Michael King comes from an old smear. The story goes that King answered to Michael from birth. Somewhere along the way he decided that he needed a more impressive name and cynically chose Martin Luther. He never changed his name legally, just one way in which everyone “knew” him for a fraud. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., held that both he and his son got Michael put on their birth certificates out of confusion. They always went by Martin. If this sounds a bit wild to us, we should keep in mind that there remains no obligation to use one’s legal name in all things so long as one doesn’t intend fraud by it. Consistent use of Martin hardly sounds like the act of a mountebank. Next the SCV will tell us that King had an obsession with white prostitutes and worked as a trained operative for the Communist Party to incite servile insurrection.

The SCV goes on:

Furthermore, the erection of a monument to anything other than the Confederate Cause being placed on top of Stone Mountain because of the objections of opponents of Georgia’s Confederate heritage would be akin to the state flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters.  Both would be altogether inappropriate and disrespectful acts, repugnant to Christian people.

No one would want to put an unwelcome flag atop the King Center, as everyone would understand it as an expression of dominance over the memory of King by those who oppose all he stood for. Likewise, those who want to put a King monument atop Stone Mountain want to repudiate its Confederate legacies and replace them with something better. If the SCV sees these positions as equivalent, then it has told us more than it probably intended about itself.

The local NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference weighed in on the King monument as well. Doubtless some in the SCV will take their opposition as proof that no racial animus plays into the SCV’s own. They would only need to neglect the reason for the opposition and the SCV has told us that black opinions don’t matter to it, so the maneuver must come naturally. Just as we would not follow Jefferson Davis’ example, so we do not need to take our cues from the SCV. Therefore, I present the reasons:

“The proposal to include Dr. King [on Stone Mountain] is simply to confuse black folk about the issues,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb County branch of the NAACP. “It’s an attempt to gain support from blacks to keep these racist and demeaning symbols.

And:

“Why are governments spending tax dollars to preserve monuments of hate?” asked [SCLC president Charles] Steele. “And more so, why put any reference of Dr. King, one of Georgia’s most favorite sons, anywhere near these three traitors?”

They have a very strong point, which has moved me from considering the King monument at least promising to a poor idea indeed. Having King celebrated in close company with the Confederate pantheon would prove very good for their resumes, but not so much for King’s. To put King in their company implies that they deserve it and that King would welcome them. The SCV perceives the same dynamic, but the other way around. To them, associating King with the Confederates would sully the brave white supremacists in gray and elevate him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I see no way out of that dilemma. Putting the two symbols together in the same context asserts a sympathetic connection between them. We should admire both similarly. It looks and feels fair on first examination, but doesn’t actually work that way. Fairness toward symbols necessitates fairness toward what they represent, which one cannot adopt without accepting the cruel, violent, rapacious works of white supremacy done under their banner or reduction of one or both symbols to utter meaninglessness. We have enough secular saints that we refuse to learn from even as we pretend to celebrate them. We have already done too much to wipe away King’s cause and the resistance to it in favor of a pablum past.

Deprived of its controversies, that “history” has nothing to teach us. It asks us to confront nothing and question ourselves not at all. If we lived in a perfectly just society, and always had, then that might not make for much of a problem. But no civilization has managed that yet. Without such an unparalleled achievement, clinging to the pablum past makes us not neutral but rather partisans for both past evils and their present day continuations. We should remember Martin Luther King, Jr., faults and all, but we should also remember him as a man white Americans feared and hated just as much as they celebrated him. White Americans jailed him and his supporters. They beat and killed civil rights activists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to drive King to suicide. These facts do not go away because we pretend otherwise.

Jim Crow Restored in Florida

The Warren Court in 1953

The Warren Court in 1953

If a man burst into your house, seized your belongings, and carried them off for his own enjoyment, you would call him a thief. He not only took things you had from you, but denied you the future enjoyment of them. We have laws against this sort of thing. Everyone would expect some kind of punishment to ensue. If a man seized your child and beat him or her so severely that it caused brain damage, so the child might never be the same again and never able to do all the things that we once dreamed, we would call the perpetrator more than a thief. He stole not just things, not just future pleasures, but a life. The child might live and there may still be happy times and sad times. I will not argue that a life fully ended beats a life disabled; people must make those choices for themselves. But if not for that beating, the child could have grown into a healthier, more successful adult. A monstrous crime like this should make the news. We should hear about the man’s history of mental illness, real or imagined. We should look forward to hearing that he will spend decades in prison. Someone would make a joke about rape. Others would argue that through his crime he had exited the species and concerns about human rights no longer applied. Whatever the guards and fellow prisoners wanted to do, we should look on with delight. We should cheer the execution of righteous violence against the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps the small crime of stealing one life cannot excite. I have known people for whom that sufficed, but people known to a history blogger do not constitute a representative sample of Americans. Imagine that a group of people broke the skulls and wounded the brains of hundreds of children. Imagine they did this for years on end, putting their victims in the thousands. Coming up on fourteen years ago, Americans responded to this scale of misdeed with enthusiastic vengeance against not merely the guilty, but against anybody who so much as looked like them. We accomplished even the remarkable feat of attacking an unrelated country in response. Patriotic commercials hit the airwaves. On the internet, everyone posted cartoons of an eagle calmly sharpening its talons. A general told us that we had no responsibility to reconcile the guilty to their god, only to arrange the meeting. A decade later, we did.

I don’t think we should admire the lust for vengeance, but I can understand it as well as anybody. When pricked, we bleed. When wronged, we revenge. Few things unfetter the more vicious side of our nature than the heady drug of righteousness. This does not make us a singularly evil people any more than it makes us singularly virtuous. Humans of all nations feel the same impulses and struggle to contain them or release them as much as we do. But if Americans have not earned a reputation as a singularly forgiving, restrained people, then the world has judged us unfairly.

Consider that in 2007, the Pinellas County School Board voted to re-segregate its schools. As various Supreme Court decisions have left Brown vs. Board of Ed. with only slightly more weight as precedent than Dred Scott, they could do this. John Roberts told the nation that year that integration schools constituted a racist offense as great as segregating them. When the Pinellas Board voted to re-segregate, it knew precisely what would happen. It promised that all manner of aid would go to predominantly black schools so that they could remain equal while becoming separate. It would all work out.

The aid never arrived. Instead, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

[…]

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The board turned average, middle of the road high schools into conspicuous failure. It took from the children consigned to them whatever futures they might have enjoyed with better conditions, conditions entirely within the Board’s reach to deliver, and made failures of them. The Board took from them education, the ability to improve themselves, chances for a better life. It took these just as surely as if it had gone around with a van to every home in the district, rounded up all the black children, and dispensed lobotomies. Pinellas might not have had the of best schools before, but it had at least average ones. The Board chose to make them worse. The bureaucrat’s pen can do the work of the billy club, bomb, and gun far more efficiently and no less destructively.

The reporters spent years investigating, reading thousands of documents. They checked Pinellas against other districts and learned that the Board had manufactured literally the worst place in Florida to commit the egregious crime of attending public school while black. They found:

Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

The usual excuses come at this point. People who insist they are not white supremacists will say that black Americans have a culture problem, the fashionable way to say that they’re just inferior to whites. Or they have a poverty problem, which somehow adheres to their skin color through means beyond our understanding. Who knows how these things work? Not the school board:

“This is a nationwide thing, not just us. You hear school districts everywhere talking about this,” said Peggy O’Shea, who also voted for the plan in 2007. “It’s an issue that’s everywhere, unfortunately.”

“We only talk about it in black schools,” she added, “but we resegregated white schools as well.”

It all sounds plausible enough if one cannot bear the burden of thought. Just how do cause and effect work? By what strange alchemy could one connect isolating black children and depriving them of the resources necessary for them to get an adequate education lead to their failure to do so? The white kids left and the test scores went into the sewer. We can’t explain it. Nor can we explain why the white schools do better. These things just happen. Then comes the meaningful silence that we must fill with the unspoken truth: the black kids can’t do better because their nature makes them into the inferiors of whites.
But the Times burdened itself with facts and committed an act of journalism:

All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.

School districts everywhere don’t manage worst in state performance. That takes a rarefied gift. One has to work hard at it. Fortunately, the Pinellas Board had that kind of effort in them. Animated by the best American can-do spirit

After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

One can’t say that they did not know how to do well, since the Board did better until 2007. Nor can one say that they lacked examples of how to do well elsewhere from which they could have learned, had they curiously forgotten the art:

Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.

This does not happen accidentally. This does not arise from ignorance or indifference. The Board knew precisely what course they chose, what it would accomplish, and have stood in the way of all attempts to undo it. As Board member Carol Cook had it:

“We’ve looked at just about everything we can and put things in place,” said Carol Cook, who also voted for resegregation in 2007. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Dylann Roof’s victims, via the BBC

She means every word of that. They set out to plunder the lives of black children and have had a rousing success at it. They have not made mistakes; they have achieved goals. It would not do to admit that, just as it doesn’t do to hoist the Confederate battle flag, don the white hood, and go off a-lynching. Nobody wants to look like Dylann Roof when one can reach his ends without such gauche accoutrements. Better to play ignorant:

Linda Lerner, who voted for the plan that resegregated the district in 2007, blamed the schools’ problems on “the cycle of poverty,” not on actions by the School Board.

Lerner has may not have learned that the connection between poverty and skin color did not arise naturally, but rather people like her created it deliberately. We could blame her schools for that. Or she could have learned the connection, correctly understood her traditions, and carried them on happily. Florida has places where poverty, however constructed, and violence, however encouraged, impede education. But those places do better than Pinellas. Once more, the Times had facts:

In St. Petersburg, the crime rate is 12 percent lower than in Orlando, 15 percent lower than in Daytona Beach and 21 percent lower than in Panama City.

The poverty rate among blacks in Pinellas is 32 percent, compared to 33 percent in Escambia County, 35 percent in Alachua County and 36 percent in Volusia County.

Yet the black neighborhoods in Pinellas are home to schools that are doing far worse than schools in any of those places.

At West Jacksonville Elementary — in a neighborhood so violent it’s nicknamed Lil’ Baghdad — black students are passing reading at twice the rate as at Fairmount Park.

In Palm Beach County, at Belle Glade Elementary — in one of Florida’s poorest places — black children are passing reading at three times the rate as at Melrose.

[…]

There were 1,664 regular elementary schools tested in Florida in 2014. Students at 1,650 of those schools passed reading at higher rates than children in Pinellas County’s five most segregated schools.

Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.

If Pinellas managed typical performance for a Florida school in similar circumstances, then the Board might evade some of the blame. They could paint themselves plausibly as victims of larger trends outside their control. But Pinellas’ achievements in excellence beat those of places that have it worse.

The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.

The Board could see a light at the end of the tunnel if they wanted to. They could undo all they have done. They need only want to. But why should they? Carol Cook said she thought the district on the right track. She knew the numbers when she said it. She heard the complaints from parents. She could see how other districts did. None of those things mattered to her, or the rest of the board, because they had the opposite goals from other districts. They wanted not to help black students improve, but rather to ensure their failure. The designed a program to achieve that and it has worked. Where we see defeat, they celebrate victory. They have stolen the futures available to black children and put them in the hands of white children in accord with the American Dream:

“They won’t even consider what other school boards have done,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “They refuse to accept that there are people who are doing things better.”

In the Board’s eyes, other districts have not done better but rather worse. No one can beat Pinellas’ performance. For this, for pillaging the youth of their county, we do not damn the Board. We do not have cartoons of the eagle sharpening its talons for them, no matter how many lives they destroyed. We forgive them the children taken away from all they could have achieved. No angry mobs gather at their doorsteps. No burning crosses adorn their lawns. The nation does not cry out for vengeance. We do not speak of scheduling meetings with their god. It takes a remarkably broad-minded nation to suffer such crimes.

This magnanimity ought to serve as a beacon in a dark world. Americans forgive. We have a great nation and when it does wrong, we forgive it. We always forgive it because we consider it ourselves. The Pinellas School Board, like the other segregationists and like the slaveholders before them, we see as part of ourselves. Forgiveness always comes easy in such cases. When the people do our actual bidding, instead of what we tell ourselves we have bid them to do, we don’t even feel it necessary to consider such things. Why forgive the absence of a wrong?

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

If black Americans suffer, then why would we deem that wrong? We belong to Club White, from which we have forever excluded them. Therefore the most horrific wrongs done unto them at best amount to an idle curiosity. We might feel a pang of conscience here or there, like we do for the victims of a natural disaster somewhere across an ocean. More often we know, even if we do not admit it, that we have not heard the miseries of the victims of hurricanes and floods, but the victims of our own designs. We have black America right where we want it. If we call ourselves innocent, then we mean not that we have not done these things but rather that we count them no crimes. They express what we honestly understand as our virtues, not our vices. Vices belong to other people, warmed in the light of different suns. Those children of lesser gods cannot help themselves, so we must subject them to discipline. If a few, a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million suffer for it, so much the better. They serve as an example to others. These creatures, which we begrudgingly call people, simply must learn their place.

As a slaveholder told Frederick Law Olmstead a century and a half ago:

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard,” Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

We tell ourselves that we have consigned these things to the past. America, born perfect, became better still. We made slavery past tense, even if half the country fought a bloody war to save it, fought another to undo its abolition, and then fought again to preserve its newer forms of subjugation. We keep telling ourselves that even as those new forms shift ever so slightly and continue along, almost unimpeded. We continue on, free from the burden of any facts, pretending that we have won one battle even we we pop the corks on the champagne to celebrate victory in another. We have only ourselves to congratulate.

I do not propose that we should turn the panoply of racial violence against the members of the Panellas School Board. No one should steal their property or their children. No one should terrorize them. No one should take from them the basics that human decency insists we grant to everyone. We need not end them to end this. But so long as we let it continue, we make ourselves accessories in their crimes. When we learn of things like this, everyone declares them not of America. We live in some different country. If our mail still reaches us at addresses in this one, if we vote in its elections, if we insist on using the same name as that strange place where all the virtues we pretend to count as vices live, then civility demands no one call the assertion into question. We have another, better country and we keep it that way by keeping the wrong sorts of people out. We made black and white so we would know which people deserved admission and which had to live in rude shacks down the hill.

We did not have to do this; no law of nature demanded it. Nor did we start this way. We chose our path beside the Chesapeake long ago and we have made ourselves its faithful inheritors. The brute facts dictate we could do otherwise. We could do it tomorrow just as we could have done it today and all the yesterdays sailing upstream on whip-cut rivers of blood and screams of agony across a continent, over the ocean, and through the centuries. We could do it, but confessing that means confessing also the harder truth: We have for all that time in a multitude of ways chosen to stay our course. We have chosen to call plunder right and justice wrong. We have not made a nation that celebrates civil rights martyrs and cherishes their legacy, but rather the nation that killed them.