THE NEGRO PROBLEM: Fables Of The Reconstruction

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY Last night, two law professors and about 40 attentive audience members braved the brutal cold to discuss race relations at the Free Library. If you caught Radio Times on NPR for the Deaf yesterday you heard one of them; Stanford professor Richard Thompson Ford talked his book “The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse,” with Marty Moss-Coane. The other professor was Michael Klarman; he teaches at the University of Virginia and has a new book called “Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History.” Klarman spoke first about the history of racial inequality in America, laying out his arguments in a clear and methodical bullet-pointed fashion. He began by deflating the conventional wisdom that says race relations have made slow and steady progress since the era of emancipation. In fact, the slog towards racial equality in America has been plagued by fits and starts, even long periods of outright regression. Did you know, he asked, that life for blacks in America was far better in 1870 during Reconstruction than it was in 1910 under Jim Crow? I didn’t.

Klarman also refuted the idea that progress for black Americans has historically been due to the efforts of progressive whites doing the right thing. Actually, black Americans have had to fight with their lives for justracecard.jpg about every inch of progress they’ve made. Further, progress has only come about during periods of confluence between fierce black struggle for equality and the right social and economic conditions. For instance, JFK was president for a full two years before Birmingham demonstrators were able to seize the opportunity to force him into a course of action against Jim Crow laws. Another president perhaps would have done nothing, and without pressure from black protesters, perhaps Kennedy would have continued to do nothing, either.

There were other confluences between the efforts of disenfranchised blacks and macro social and political forces that helped propel the Civil Rights movement. It was only after the Great Migration of 7 million southern blacks to northern states that blacks were able to seize the political power needed to start bringing racial policies into line with America’s supposed democratic principles. But two things aided this sweeping change, and it wasn’t the efforts of progressive whites acting on moral outrage. First, pressure from the international community was brought to bear on the US at the outset of World War II. Wasn’t it hypocritical that we were attacking Nazi fascism with a still segregated army? Later, during the Cold War, improved race relations became imperative as fear swept the nation that Communists would be able to leverage America’s historical inequalities as a platform for a strong insurgency against the government by alienated blacks.

unfinishedbus_1.jpgKlarman closed with the final revelation that the Supreme Court has been far from a consistent vehicle for progressive ideas on race. With the exception of a few notable short periods of progressive decisions, the Court has been a consistently regressive stronghold of race relations thinking. These patterns tend to reflect popular opinion, he argued, and the simple fact is that America hasn’t been a particularly progressive place during the 150 years; in fact, we have usually only implemented progressive policies in the face of immense pressure.

Rich Thompson Ford took a more upbeat and less professorial tack than Klarman, speaking seriously for a moment about the sad state of race discussion in America, with the news media focusing almost exclusively on tawdry Imus-like scandals rather than probing into “the real discussion we should be having about what’s happening in places like Newark and Camden.” Joblessness, the intensity of urban poverty, and rates of incarceration of black men are far higher than they ever were in the Jim Crow South, but the fact is that those topics don’t sell newspapers or TV ad time.

Ford continued with a series of entertainingly absurd scenarios where the Race Card was dealt to illustrate how this cheap tactic denigrates and obfuscates the race discussion. When Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court liberals played the race card on George H.W. Bush, and this lead to a backfire of legendary proportions. Groups like the NAACP demanded that Marshall be replaced by a black judge, and other liberal groups joined the chorus, backing Bush into a position of being attacked for racism if he didn’t comply. So comply he did, and Bush produced Clarence Thomas, a black judge that “made Edmund Burke look like Che Guevera.” Having successfully flipped the script, Bush put liberals in the awkward position of attacking a black judge.

The second scenario Ford laid out was the brouhaha between Jay-Z and the French maker of Cristal, who snootilyJZFINALcropped_1.jpg told the Economist magazine that their product was made for only the highest of sensibilities and that hip-hop’s adulation of the brand was “unwanted attention.” Jay-Z cried racism, and called for blacks to boycott the brand. Now, is this really the direction we want to take the race discussion, Ford asked? Does Jay-Z really deserve to co-opt the rhetoric of civil rights, which originated out of a life-and-death struggle against a White Supremacist regime that didn’t hesitate to maim and kill, and then deploy it in an attack against a maker of $300 bottles of champagne who doesn’t like the fact that he tends to pour it mostly over half-naked women? What was Cristal maker’s gripe? Were they saying they didn’t want black people drinking their product? Or were they saying that they prefer not to have the high praise of a hip-hop culture that is unfortunately misogynistic and glorifies violence and drug dealing? If it’s the latter, perhaps Cristal has a valid beef, and maybe Jay-Z shouldn’t have been so quick to pull an Al Sharpton.

But why is this debate so high profile when high school graduation rates of urban blacks is as low as they are? Don’t we have bigger fish to fry than Jay-Z’s right to $300 bubbly? In all, it was a fascinating discussion that really highlighted some important issues and made some seriously compelling arguments about the state of race relations in the past in present in America.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.

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