Studying the American civil war and civil rights movement, its clear theres no racial nirvana ahead. Instead there may be an era of sustained political violence
At the end of the American civil war, before Reconstruction could plant its feet solidly in the south, white people in the region fought to redeem their states from freedmen, whom they saw as corrupt and ignorant, and northern rulers, whom they deemed to be corrupt opportunists. So bloody was the campaign that ultimately returned black people to near-slavery that one writer, Nicholas Lemann, described the redemption period, from 1876 to the mid-1890s, as the last battle of the civil war. I remind you of this because the president-elects selection of Jeff Sessions as attorney general suggests, perhaps more than any other appointment, that the redeemers have once again triumphed.
In the 20th century, after the successes of the civil rights movement, eventually a reincarnated redemption movement diminished the force of the 1960s civil rights laws and led to racialised mass incarceration. The prospect that the combined voice of a Sessions justice department and an altered supreme court may cut deeply into legal protections upon which minorities have relied since the civil rights movement deserves close analysis. Far more frightening, however, is the real possibility that the current regime will usher in an era of sustained political violence, reminiscent, in purpose if not precisely in kind, of what was experienced in the original redemption.
This sounds far-fetched, to be sure, but as we prognosticate over what the Trump presidency will mean, it would be a mistake to ignore how the US once legitimated and then paved over this long era of state-organised racial violence. Here is where traditional law-making, partisan politics and racial violence have historically intersected. If political violence was the fuel of the redemption machine, new disenfranchising laws comprised its chassis and the Democratic party was its engineer. What, then, can be learned from history that might help us stave off the most ruthless reactions to the two previous reconstructions?
The presidential election of 1876, which brought to power Rutherford Hayes and led to the ejection of the Republican party in the south, marked the entrenchment of political terror against the newly emancipated citizens. In the aftermath, the freedom dreams of African Americans and their allies were replaced with an apartheid from which the nation has really never recovered.
After a political flowering in the wake of the civil war, the likes of which the country would not witness again for more than a century about 2,000 black elected officials in the former Confederate states (including two US senators and a governor), a commitment to public education, agrarian reform and economic development in the south, a federalised civil rights regime black people were stripped of legal protections and whipped, raped, lynched and defrauded back into submission.
Researchers have estimated that in the presidential election of 1880 black voter turnout in North Carolina was 81%, a figure that dropped to 1% by the 1912 election. And while a black North Carolinian was elected to Congress in 1897, a second would not serve in that body until 1992. Literal, collectively enacted and virulent, the violence of the redemption was not distinct from its politics but rather the product of complex relations among actors aiming to redefine the political community.
Since the 1960s historians have termed the civil rights movement a second reconstruction. The second redemption, just as with the first, rested on the myth that white racial attitudes had so moderated that minority groups no longer needed protection; on this reading affirmative action policies and protections against disfranchisement were not only unnecessary but also unAmerican.
A casual study of the American past makes two things clear: first, racial progress proceeds in zigzag fashion whether because, as the legal theorist Derrick Bell argued, the white majority supports minority rights only if they converge with white interests, or because a full mapping of the USs racial history has never been undertaken; and second, partisan politics both constructs and reflects distinct racial categories. In other words there is no racial nirvana ahead of us; rather, what we will have, given the USs troubled history and disinclination to tackle it, is permanent contestation and contingency. Indeed, its political salience is precisely what renders race so reliably non-perishable.
Barack Obama championed incremental change, perhaps because he believed that nothing else was possible in American politics. They may not have been earth-shattering but Obamas successes including the fact of his election reflected a sort of third reconstruction, the antithesis of which is breathing heavily on the backs of peoples necks. That the Trump regime will aim to augment the voting power of its core rural constituency by expanding voter suppression laws and launching a full-throttled effort to repeal what is left of the Voting Rights Act is a given. Trump promised as much when he recently complained that millions of votes were fraudulently cast, and Sessions has denied that restrictive laws have hurt black citizens in his home state of Alabama.
Also vulnerable are civil rights measures that were passed on commerce clause grounds, such as the equal employment opportunity provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, known as Title VII. Tea Party constitutionalists, echoing arguments by libertarian legal scholars such as the Hoover Institutes Richard Epstein, claim that the supreme court has, since the 1930s, improperly enlarged the scope of that clause to the detriment of individual liberties. While libertarian jurists may have aligned with traditional liberals on same-sex marriage, some of them also think that the commerce clause does not confer on Congress the power to forbid racial or gender discrimination by private companies. This seemed a preposterous position, but if it gains momentum in academic circles and adherents on the court, Title VII is one of scores of measures that could end up on the chopping block.
Redemption number three may bring us more than just the formal rollback of 1960s-era civil rights laws. One thing is pretty certain: the resistance to this president is likely to be fierce and militant. And in response, the federal government, led by the Sessions justice department, may well launch a low-intensity war against the insurgents. Also to be expected is that poor and marginalised communities will be subjected to increased state violence in the form of police brutality, mass criminalisation and incarceration, and other forms of violence, both attritional and lethal.
The line between legal and extra-legal violence could fade as it typically does in times of heightened political or racial conflict and as it did in the first redemption, when even moderate white people kept silent in the face of the Ku Klux Klans butchery because they sought a speedy return to white rule in the south.
Trumps demonising of the Movement for Black Lives (a coalition of US groups representing black communities, including Black Lives Matter) has reinforced the perceptions of many white people that they are a distinctive community threatened with extinction by black crime. One can expect that white racial solidarity, mobilised by economic anxiety, prejudice and Trumps Make America Great Again nation-building project, will incline white people to justify extra-legal violence and incorporate it into beliefs about what the law actually permits. The president-elects campaign, which mixed fear and stereotypes to generate violence, created the kind of climate in which vigilantism thrives, and nothing in the post-election weeks has changed this picture.
Clearly this will not be redemption redux, and one would hope that the rule of law would hold, but it is also true that, notwithstanding the horrors of the 20th century, we dont really understand what persuades ordinary people to butcher their neighbours and co-citizens. Americans are just as human as Rwandans, Germans and Serbians; no more, no less.
The first reconstruction opened, for an exhilarating moment, a window through which former slave communities could envision a new political life. The post-reconstruction counter-revolutions suggest that such instants of transformation can be quickly subverted, and that the challenge of recapturing what was lost is arduous and protracted.
The myth that racism is dead has been variously styled separate but equal, colourblindness and post-racialism. Whatever the term, it is the duty of all of us who fear for the US to remember that though racial attitudes are not unalterable or homogeneous, race will always register and resistance will always resurface. Revolutionaries holding alternative understandings of what ails America as a nation its the class struggle, stupid who want to win elections, or transform power relations more fundamentally, would do well to examine the politics of the redemption and that 95-year gap in North Carolina.