Murder of George Floyd and My Segregated Youth

By John Weeks

John Weeks is a London-based member of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), one of the founders of the UK-based Economists for Rational Economic Policies, part of the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy, and a frequent contributor to Dollars & Sense and the D&S blog.

Memories of White Supremacy

I was born in Austin, Texas in 1941, a city which claims a benign “southwestern” character of cultural diversity. My public primary school was segregated, as was all my schooling until 1957 when the town authorities had no choice but to enforce the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision to include African-American Austinites. When I graduated in 1959 my secondary school had about 2,500 students, one of whom was black.

Though Austin’s 1960 population of 190.000 included—excluded is perhaps the better word—28,000 black citizens and 21,000 citizens of Mexican descent, so effective was the formal and informal system of segregation that I rarely encountered either. The University of Texas, where I became an undergraduate in 1959, boasted over 20,000 students. Perhaps a dozen of those students were African American.

We whites occasionally called black citizens “negroes,” though more frequently used the term “colored,” which is why my skin crawls when I read the now-common term “people of color,” with its implication now as then that whites have no color. Until the mid-1950s the few white-owned businesses that allowed black shoppers had segregated toilets with the signs “White” and “Colored.” I can recall one of my university professors provoking campus controversy by repeatedly using the term “light-skinned” rather than white, implying that we the majority was also “colored.” He hailed from Massachusetts, an ideologically suspect “Yankee.”

Only now, 60 years later, do I partially, but not fully, appreciate the profound racism of my upbringing with its many layers. What appeared to me as a benignly tolerant Austin was in practice a continual reign of white supremacy with recurrent violence to maintain the subjugation of 15% of the population that I hardly ever saw. That thinly-disguised reign of white supremacy provides a common context for almost all white Americans, day-to-day benign normality overlaying a reign of terror that sustains our privileges.

That context is essential for whites to understand the murder of George Floyd. I frequently hear critics of U.S. racism say that killing blacks is not a crime in America. The truth is more unpleasant—killing black citizens serves the functional purpose of maintaining white rule and rolling back what gains African Americans have achieved.

The Civil War and Counter-Revolution

Americans of my generation learned a specific interpretation of the country’s history that implicitly and occasionally explicitly extolled white supremacy, more explicit than implicit in the 11 ex-Confederate states. However, in the North and South, U.S. school children learned an accepted wisdom: 1) the unsuccessful impeachment of Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president and successor Andrew Johnson represented a triumph of the constitutional separation of powers; and 2) Ulysses S. Grant, Union commander and first elected president after Lincoln, was a drunk, an incompetent general, and a corrupt president.

If anything, Johnson was the boozer, notorious for giving his inaugural address drunk. John Kennedy in his ghost-written Profiles in Courage lauds as a hero the senator whose vote allegedly prevented Johnson’s impeachment, Edmund Ross of Kansas. Whether or not Ross’s vote was pivotal, Johnson’s acquittal represented a clear victory for white supremacy. Lincoln’s successor opposed the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted citizenship to ex-slaves, as well as facilitating the return to power of white supremacists and confederate leaders in the secessionist states.

The denigration of Grant also had its roots in support for southern racism and white supremacy. Elected president in 1868, Grant supported the radical measures to transform the secessionist states into functioning democracies. He maintained the military occupation of those states, enforced political rights of the freed slaves, and aggressively crushed the Ku Klux Klan, the terrorist wing of white supremacy. During Grant’s administration multi-racial governments took power in the secessionist states.

Dismissed by generations of historians as a corrupt drunk, Grant in practice became a champion of southern democracy, though less so in his second term. For his support of democracy, whites throughout the South, including my mother (from Alabama), loathed Grant. Had subsequent presidents maintained even a mild version of “radical reconstruction” policies the United States would today be a very different country.

I have used the word “citizen” to refer to African Americans. While strictly correct, that term has limited meaning. The counter-revolution that ended the progressive democratization of the South has a precise date, 1877, with the compromise that brought Grant’s successor to the presidency, though he gained less than 48% of the popular vote, compared to the loser’s 51%. The Compromise of 1877, “the Great Betrayal,” granted the Republican candidate the presidency in exchange for the end of progressive reform in the South.

White Supremacy Re-established

In May of this year, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to use the U.S. Army to quell the protests of the murder of George Floyd. The legality would come from invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, passed by Congress to prevent a conspiracy by Aaron Burr to create a country west of the Mississippi.

The main legal obstacle to use of the military against civil unrest comes from the Posse Comitatus Act of 1876. This law restricts the use of the U.S. military to intervene in civil unrest, and would block Trump from mobilizing the armed forces to use against protestors. Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act as part of ending southern reconstruction. Its motivation was formally and legally to end the military occupation of the secessionist states. As such it played an essential role in facilitating the return of the plantation owners to power and re-establishing white supremacy.

The role of the Posse Comitatus Act in the Great Betrayal of African Americans does not argue against invoking it to prevent irresponsible and racist actions by Trump. Rather, it demonstrates how almost every aspect of the U.S. legal system has a racist undercurrent. White supremacy in the south resulted from conscious policies applied by the federal government over decades that reversed political reforms in the secessionist states, facilitating the institutionalization of white supremacy by state and local governments.

Along with Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt was, in my opinion, the greatest U.S. president. Notwithstanding his accomplishments, many of FDR’s programs reinforced white supremacy, the most obvious case being his failure to support the anti-lynching bill of 1937, which southern Senators, all Democrats, filibustered to death. Less obvious, FDR’s original version of the Social Security Act of 1935 covered agricultural and domestic servants.

However, African Americans made up the agricultural labor force of the south, and white southern Congressmen controlled the committees through which New Deal legislation had to pass. Roosevelt decided that excluding agricultural workers represented a necessary condition for the passage of Social Security. More grotesque, the famous G.I. Bill of Rights (officially the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944) in practice excluded 1.2 million African-American veterans from its benefits.

In 1944, southern racists forced Roosevelt to abandon his progressive vice president Henry Wallace and replace him with Harry Truman, a Missouri Senator with a racist history (his parents owned slaves). When Truman became president after the death of Roosevelt in May 1945, few expected him to become the first chief executive since Grant to initiate a policy explicitly intended to reduce white supremacy. In 1947 he ended formal segregation of the military and a year later integrated employment in the federal government.

By contrast, President Dwight Eisenhower lobbied the head of the Supreme Court to support the southern racists opposing the path-breaking decision to end “separate but equal” schools, Brown vs. the Board of Education. Eisenhower’s successor, John Kennedy, had at best an ambiguous record on white racism during his brief tenure as president. His vice president Lyndon Johnson, like Truman a southerner (from Texas), became the first president since Grant to introduce substantial legislation aimed at undermining white supremacy—the Civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Action of 1965. No subsequent president would take any major step towards reducing white supremacy.

Looking Backwards

The view that U.S. society has made continuous or even sustained progress reducing white supremacy since the 1950s is false. Reaction and resurgence of white supremacy have followed the few moments of substantial progress. Reconstruction in the south, which fundamentally challenged white supremacy in the secessionist states ended abruptly, followed by a complete reversal with little gained in the south beyond the formal end of slavery. Since the 1960s, Congress, state governments, and the Supreme Court have weakened the civil rights laws passed under Lyndon Johnson.

Gains would have been non-existent and the setbacks even greater were it not for the struggles led by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and subsequently. That movement has persisted despite continuous repression over the decades.

Physically, the Austin in which I grew to adulthood has changed almost beyond recognition. The racism and white rule of the 1950s and 1960s remains, altered in form but not in essence. The reign of terror that enforces white rule continues despite the statue of an African-American legislator, Barbara Jordan, in the airport and the renaming of a major street as Martin Luther King Boulevard. With the exception of very few university professors and professionals, Austin remains as segregated and white ruled as it was in my teenage years.

Two years ago when I walked the streets near the university campus and the central city south of the state capitol, I encountered few African Americans. Housing integration has meant gentrification that has forced African Americans into ever more distant suburbs. Far from weird, Austin adheres to the nature of U.S. society, idyllic for middle class whites, a repressive apartheid for African Americans.

 

Eight Lessons from History to Help Make Sense of Today’s Madness

By Abby Scher

I learned to peer beyond my political bubble in the early 1980s, first when Ronald Reagan was elected president and destroyed the New Deal coalition in which I was raised and then when Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop ERA women indeed stopped the Equal Rights Amendment for women from becoming the law of the land by defeating those of us fighting to win its passage in the Illinois legislature. We needed three more states for the Constitutional Amendment to be enacted, and Illinois was one state where we had a chance. On the steps of the Springfield, Illinois, capital were white women with lacquered hair wearing skirt suits and beige stockings carrying red Stop ERA signs. They seemed to have stepped out of the past, so how could they stop the forward march of history?

Well, they did. I found out later many were part of a resurging right-wing Christian movement. And I learned the hard way that you have to understand who your political opponents are and not take them for granted in your own righteousness. I ended up researching a doctoral dissertation about right-wing and liberal women in conflict over fundamental questions about U.S. life and governance during the conspiratorial red-baiting era after World War II and during McCarthyism in the 1950s.

McCarthyism took place during the Korean War when Democrat Harry Truman was president. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fellow Republicans were happy to go along with his outrageous, made-up stories about subversives in the State Department or wherever to try to capture the power that they lost during the major political realignment of the New Deal in the 1930s—particularly the right-wing, isolationist Republicans led by Robert Taft who wanted to dismantle Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act and Keynesian management of the economy.  The moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower who generally accepted the New Deal and were relatively liberal on race may have won the presidency in 1954 within this cauldron, but they lost the party in the long run, as we have seen.

Here are eight lessons this history taught me in my struggle to understand my country now.

  1. Movements do not always reveal all the roots of their positions when they are fighting their opponents, not the alt-Right nor the anti-communist movement I studied in the 1950s. That means we have to do our research. The women I studied did not foreground their anti-Semitic, right-wing Christian worldview until the conspiratorial bullying of Senator McCarthy lost some of its potency and their more secular-minded allies ran for cover. Many of those who claimed President Obama was an imposter, a secret Muslim born abroad, were racist right-wing Christians who saw him as the anti-Christ. The Tea Party’s overlay with the Christian Right was often overlooked by secular reporters covering the movement who were tone-deaf to its underpinnings.
  2. War abroad roils up right-wing sentiment, ethnocentrism, and male power at home. We take for granted the backdrop of the Korean War during McCarthyism and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during our own period. But the blowback from war is hugely formative on the home front. Yes, war fans the flames of Islamophobia but it does more. I first glimpsed the “more” during the right-wing backlash to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and after he was elected. That’s when a new group, the Oath Keepers, composed of former military and police officers, rose up during the Tea Party movement to defend the white republic. Heavily armed militias and the fetish of male power in the barrel of a gun gained new force. And while Trump may have encouraged them, I would argue far right white nationalists began their latest killing spree in the Obama years with the 2009 killing at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
  3. Right-wing populism helps us understand racial scapegoating as immigrants, or blacks or Jews are blamed for economic failures that corporate management of the economy on behalf of the wealthiest create. Its adherents feel like victims, like they are losing power, whether we think so or not. Sometimes they are losing power. My former colleague Chip Berlet also argues that when right-wing populism nurtures conspiracies to explain capitalist failures, it does not grapple with those failures head on. Instead it creates arguments no more grounded in reality than Senator McCarthy’s claim in 1950 that there were exactly 205 members of the Communist Party secretly subverting America in the U.S. State Department.
  4. The far Right can be stopped when other parts of the Right or the demoralized center start opposing them. They should be encouraged to do so. Blacklists of course continued beyond McCarthy’s fall and into Ike’s presidency, but the senator’s individual power was punctured in 1954 after he attacked the Army, and the Army’s lawyer famously asked, after the senator smeared one of his young aides on national television, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” So far Trump’s corrosive bullying, dehumanization of migrants and people of color, and abuse of power and civic norms have not faced such a credible challenge from within his party.
  5. The Far Right was actively made to be toxic and thrown out of polite company. While no moderate, William F. Buckley succeeded in sidelining virulent antisemitism on the Right in the 1950s to salvage conservatism as a force through his new National Review While anti-Semites did not have a platform in National Review, racists did and the magazine was vocally racist against African Americans and the rising civil rights movement until forced to use dog whistles by changing times to retain credibility. The rise of the internet and Fox News means the sidelining of the far Right by some conservative and more mainstream media is over.  Once again, we need to actively work to sideline Fox News and internet outlets that give a platform to the racist and conspiratorial right, whether through advertiser or vendor boycotts.
  6. Virulent conspiratorial antisemitism of the type seen in the Pittsburgh massacre is rooted in a far right Christian view of Jews having demonic powers as the spawn of Satan. This can be secularized to Jews being the cause of all the crises dispossessing white people as they manipulate and control the world economy and fellow minorities in conspiracies that do not mention Satan. For white nationalists, we Jews are seen as the guiding power manipulating blacks, immigrants and the wave of Honduran migrants seek shelter in our country.
  7. Popular-front politics bringing together unlikely allies are vital in standing up to and defeating the far right. The liberal-socialist-communist popular front of the 1930s was weakened by infighting as any cursory student of history knows. We have to set aside our snarkiness and learn to work in bigger coalitions without attacking those in the trenches with us. Maybe we will learn something. I discovered in my research the nonpartisan League of Women Voters and its Democratic and Republican women members was one of the few institutions to stand up to McCarthyism. Who are the unlikely allies of today?
  8. We cannot take for granted that the democratic systems and norms we feel are insufficiently democratic will stand without our defense. When systems and governments don’t work and lose legitimacy, strong-man, authoritarian solutions may seem attractive. Meanwhile, we activists get stuck in our trench warfare fighting to defend one single arena that is under siege. Or we don’t even show up hoping the checks we send to support nonprofits or movements will be enough. Somehow, we need to fight on behalf of true democracy, economic, gender and racial justice for all, the climate and the common good all at the same time. We can do that by holding out our hands to all those in movement, creating the solidarity that both gives us hope and weaves together the future that will sustain us.

Abby Scher is a former co-editor of Dollars & Sense and a current board member. 

Note: This post was updated to correct an error. The original version suggested that Illinois was one of three states any one of which could get the ERA enacted, when in fact ratification from three more states was needed at that point. –Eds.