Friday, November 16, 2007

Reagan and Race

Ross offers the best roundup yet of the whole "Was Reagan a Racist" bit playing itself out in the NYT between Krugman and Brooks:

Goldwater, it's worth noting, didn't just oppose the Civil Right Acts; he also played many of the same cards that Nixon and Reagan did, talking up law and order, critiquing welfare, and so forth. He did so because these are perennial conservative themes, not because he was a racist, and he lost anyway because they weren't themes that resonated with most American voters in 1964. They started to resonate in '68 and '72 and '80, though - not because white Americans in the Border South and the Midwest and the Mountain West suddenly figured out that they were code for hating black people, but because crime rates exploded over the quarter-century that followed Goldwater, and the (liberal-run) government seemed helpless to do anything about it.

Yes, you can argue that no civil rights movement would have meant no Republican realigment. But I think it's much, much more persuasive to say no crime wave, no Republican realignment. Or no urban collapse and welfare-system failure, no Republican realignment. Or no disastrous consequences of high-tax statist economics in the 1970s, no Republican realignment. Or no Roe v. Wade, no Republican realignment. Or no leftward shift in Democratic foreign policy, no Republican realignment.

The assumption that Ross shares with just about everyone else writing about this: it is right and proper that segregationists, qua segregationists, should go away from the political process empty-handed.

This is a curious attitude towards democracy. It is hard to think of any political constituency so bereft of political representation after 1972 as southerners who cared about the people their children went to school with. Disagreeing with segregation is entirely understandable. But why would it be wrong for a party to give a voice to it? Isn't that what "government for, by, and of the people" ought to mean?

It is very ease for people, myself included, to reject Jim Crow laws, but we should be sufficiently self-aware to realize that our enlightenment is a function of factors of wealth, geography, and the nature of cognitive work that have allowed us to enjoy de facto segregation from large concentrations of blacks. The blacks we know socially and professionally have been preselected for their level of assimilation to majority white cognitive, behavioral, and socio-economic norms.

But for a poor Southern white, or a poor urban white for that matter, the end of segregation meant finding himself progressively surrounded by blacks not so preselected; indeed, by increasing numbers of people at the very instant that they were not only rejecting adaptation to white culture, but were actively nursing a grudge against white society. People whose crime rates were exploding, whose families were disintegrating, whose dependence on the public sector was becoming manifest.

I don't know what that was like. Ross probably doesn't know either. Brooks and Krugman certainly have no idea.

But I can imagine. In the very early 80s, I spent a semester at an inner-suburban high school that was 80% black. I didn't have a political agenda back then; in fact, I didn't expect much from my fellow humans at all. Mainly I just wanted to get through the day without being beaten up. But I remember the palpable sense of fear that I felt navigating the campus. No, I was never really beaten up that semester, but the entire atmosphere of the school made me think that it might happen at any moment: people larger and stronger than me talking loudly and profanely, people whose body language always suggested violence. Smoking in bathrooms. No-go stairwells. Actual fights in the lunchroom. Everything about the place suggested something only just barely under control.

Mercifully, my daughters will never have to go through that: we homeschool, and in any case our school distict is over 90% white, where the number of blacks isn't even large enough to get its own statistic.

More broadly, my perception is that the ethnic cleansing of whites from urban areas is largely complete. Our housing patterns are now probably more segregated than ever. So the constituency for Jim Crow is dramatically reduced. But that wasn't true in 1980. And nobody -- not Reagan, not Carter -- had much to say about it. Update: Via Half Sigma, an article in Time, circa 1976, that describes exactly what I mean.

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