Jim Crow Comes to Michigan

Gentle Readers, the triumphant story of the Civil Rights Movement ends in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow died there, stabbed through the heart by Lyndon Johnson’s pen. Black Americans henceforth had protection against state governments that acted more as their jailers than their servants. Their laws did not say, in so many words, that no black person could cast a vote but the men who wrote them made sure it worked out that way. To grant the vote to subhumans would degrade actual people who, our most ancient creed holds, come exclusively in white skin. The Supreme Court has gotten at the law, cutting away many of its substantial protections. We must now believe that some states with a history of racial discrimination -a trait all fifty share- do not require special attention. As a result those same states have rushed to erect numerous obstructions to casting a vote, closing more than eight hundred polling places and writing laws against the phantom of voter impersonation fraud which they design to ensure black Americans don’t vote. The laws will not catch every black voter, of course, but they can swing close elections. Furthermore, their mere presence serves as a deterrent.

My state has had voter ID on the books since the Nineties. I disagreed with it then, on the grounds that the fraud it’s claimed to protect happens so rarely that these measures clearly constitute a solution looking for a problem. Even if someone went around to multiple polling places to cast votes under assumed names, complete with the correct addresses remembered on the spot and the person they posed as didn’t show up before or later and cast suspicion on the ballot by doing so, microscopic vote margins happen so rarely and unpredictably even in local races that they amount to statistical noise. An individual could cast no more than a handful of fake votes. As soon as you get enough people to really make a difference, things look more like territorial Kansas. Everybody who knows anything about elections already knows this.

But Michigan requires you to have identification so every time I go with my driver’s license in hand. I present it to one of my father’s old coworkers, a man who used to live less than a block from me. We know each other by sight. He passes it to his wife, who knows me just as well. They scan the license and compare my address and name with their records to discover, quelle surprise, I am who they thought I am. Then they mark my name off and hand me a ballot. The license adds no great security to the rest, but it does cost money and one has to go out and get a new one every now and then. If I lost my license or it was damaged and I could not get a new one before election day, I would have to swear an affidavit that I had the right to vote in my precinct and then proceed. More than eighteen thousand of my fellow Michigan residents did that this month. While not ideal, and clearly intended to deprive people of less means of their chance to vote, they state government hasn’t gotten all it paid for from this system. Black Michiganders still vote.

The Republicans who control the state government have had quite enough of that. The Party of Lincoln, founded in this state, has decided to throw in with Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. They insist that if you don’t have your ID, even if you have the right name and address and the risk of someone impersonating a voter is astronomically rare and unlikely to ever matter without being obvious to the dullest observer, you should have to cast a provisional ballot. They will cast it in the trash, only to rescue it if you provide your ID within ten days. In other words, if you have the misfortune of lacking an ID on election day you have less than two weeks to get fortunate enough, find out where and how you can prove your bona fides, and then get your vote counted long after the outcome has been announced.

Maybe people will do that, but the Michigan GOP hopes they will not. They have dug this law out of a drawer somewhere, in the lame duck session immediately after the election just as they did when they voted to eviscerate the right to unionize in our state. Now they rush to get it passed before opposition can mount. I suspect that, while their gerrymandering will keep them in control of the legislature, they worry about the governor’s race in 2018. Their incumbent poisoned thousands of black people, after all. Those people have families and friends who will vote, probably not for whoever they run for the top spot in the state.

This should remind us that Jim Crow disenfranchised black Americans by the millions because of their race, but also because of how they would vote. The Democratic party that erected the whole edifice knew full well that the freedpeople and their descendants would remember what party freed them and stood up for their rights. In much of the postwar South, if black men could vote then they would decide elections. In still more areas, they would have numbers enough to force white politicians to court their support or see it go to an opponent. We must remember segregation as a racial injustice, but we should not forget that racism doesn’t come down to pseudoscientific theories about superiority. Rather we invented white supremacy to justify an existing political and economic order against challenges to it. In suppressing the vote so they can keep winning elections, Republicans in Michigan and across the country have not departed from our most deadly creed; they have renewed it.

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The Two Triumphs of Simone Manuel

Gentle Readers, I live by Lake Huron; my whole town does. I can be at the lake in five minutes by car or half an hour as the podcast-listening blogger in no particular hurry walks. Back in my mother’s day, to graduate high school here you had to be able to swim and prove it. By the time I graduated, that requirement had long gone. Now you know how I got out of high school; as a child I enjoyed being in the water but never quite learned how to swim. I did not know until today that I shared that with 68.9% of black children in the United States.

I don’t know from sports, but I found out that Simone Manuel won a gold medal in swimming at the Olympics. No other black woman from the United states had done so. This makes her another first black American for us to celebrate come February and forget promptly, as we usually do. The firsts matter, but our conventional focus on them risks two costly mistakes. We can take a first person as the end of a story, the victory lap in a story of progress. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and Barack Obama broke through the color line, so we have triumphed over white power. Everyone applauds as the curtain falls. Pay no attention to the rabid white supremacy still raging almost undisturbed behind it. It would not do to demean the achievements of talented individuals in breaking down social barriers, but I think it makes far more sense to consider them as beginnings of stories than ends.

I did not see Manuel win her gold. I have seen other events where the reporter comes immediately to the American who wins second place for an interview. You expect that when you watch an American network. Maybe the person from Tuvalu or Belarus actually won, but the home country’s network will focus on the home country athletes even if language barriers didn’t very often argue for it. Not so for Manuel, who had to make do with a still photo on Twitter while the American news discussed an Australian swimmer. Priorities, you know? Maybe the law made her an American, but white Americans have never quite made our peace with that.

The other peril of focusing on first arises from that. In taking a first achievement as a kind of trivia point, we easily miss just why it mattered. Maybe it would have taken until Manuel hit the water for a black American woman to win a swimming gold, but we can’t know because white Americans have long insisted that black people have no place in our swimming pools. We have dumped acid into them to keep our waters white. We have drained the pools and filled them with dirt or concrete. More often, we’ve abandoned public pools that must accept swimmers of all colors in favor of private pools we can keep whites-only. We don’t much care for black people getting their blackness into our pools. Take it from Strom Thurmond himself:

Thurmond had a seat in the United States Senate into the twenty-first century. South Carolina kept voting for him and he ended his career as a revered and exceptionally elder statesman. Why wouldn’t he? His name made for a good trivia question and everybody knew his checkered past, but that kind of thing rarely disqualifies any white man from much of anything in the United States.

All the black children who don’t learn how to swim, and so die from drowning at five times the rate of white children. But if we poison them to cut costs then you can’t expect white America to care much about mere accidental deaths. I say accidental because so far as I can tell the statistics omit suicides; the people who drowned did not mean to do so. But in another sense, they don’t qualify at all. You can’t learn to swim without some dependable water nearby and for a great many people, particularly in cities, that means a pool. White Americans left those behind to die from lack of funds, where we didn’t destroy them, rather than let black Americans enjoy the water with us. We chose that policy and we have kept right on choosing it. We know the consequences and we, as we almost always do, took the deaths of black Americans as at least an acceptable loss. Some of us surely go so far as to prefer it.

I can’t know what went through the minds of the directors, film crew, and reporters who ignored Manuel’s achievement, but flag-waving enthusiasm didn’t enter into it or she would have gotten far more coverage than she did. We are all trained to believe black Americans just don’t count, even beyond how we’re trained to think women don’t count. But meaner things lurk in the national consciousness. She didn’t win her races for an America that we’ve been trained all our lives to see as our own: the white male land playground build on stolen land and lives. She represented an America that that country has fought for centuries. For her to win, it had to lose. We do not celebrate our losses.

Simone Manuel beat her opponents in the pool. She beat Strom Thurmond and all his modern doppelgangers too.

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.

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.

When is it over?

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?