“Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes…Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws…With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law.”
Alexander Stevens on the Confederate Constitution, 1861
“Well down here, they see things a little differently…people down here feel that some things are worth killing for.”
Agent Monk (Gene Hackman), from Mississippi Burning
“Slavery is, as an example of what white America has done, a constant reminder of what white America might do.”
Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well
For much of our history, those who fought to free America from racial bigotry were animated by a common idea. They saw racism as a glitch, a bug in our collective software, rooted in our heritage of slavery, inspired by ignorance, and exorcised by the light of reason. As such, racism could be moved to the margins of society through legal action and education until it might one day be eradicated.
In the decades after the Civil Rights Acts, a new pessimism began to spread in some quarters. Faced with what seemed like slow progress on the ground, some began to question the assumptions that inspired previous generations of activists. Harvard law professor Derrick Bell perhaps best articulated this alternative theory of America’s racial dilemma.
What Bell recognized, and missed, in his picture of American race relations resonates now in the rise of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and an increasingly unapologetic white nationalist movement on the right. Bell’s work deserves a much closer look as we ponder how to adapt to the surprisingly explosive challenges posed by the decline of white supremacy.
With Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, published in 1992, Bell described an alternative to the prevailing narrative on race. He focused on two interlocking conclusions. First, racism in American culture and politics is not bug, but a feature. It was wired into the American experience at birth and plays a vital role in sustaining our unique approach to democracy. Bell argues that this first premise dictates the second, that racial discrimination in American culture is permanent and immutable.
Communicating this idea requires more than a one or two-sentence quote. Here are some relevant passages from Faces:
The critically important stabilizing role that blacks play in this society constitutes a major barrier in the way of achieving racial equality…Whites are rallied on the basis of racial pride and patriotism to accept their often lowly lot in life, and encouraged to vent their frustration by opposing any serious advancement by blacks. Crucial to this situation is the unstated understanding by the mass of whites that they will accept large disparities in economic opportunity in respect to other whites as long as they have a priority over blacks and other people of color for access to the few opportunities available…
The permanence of this “symbiosis” ensures that civil rights gains will be temporary and setbacks inevitable. Consider: In this last decade of the twentieth century, color determines the social and economic status of all African Americans, both those who have been highly successful and their poverty- bound brethren whose lives are grounded in misery and despair…
I want to set forth this proposition, which will be easier to reject than refute: Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary “peaks of progress,” short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.
We identify with and hail as hero the man or woman willing to face even death without flinching. Why? Because, while no one escapes death, those who conquer their dread of it are freed to live more fully. In similar fashion, African Americans must confront and conquer the otherwise deadening reality of our permanent subordinate status. Only in this way can we prevent ourselves from being dragged down by society’s racial hostility. Beyond survival lies the potential to perceive more clearly both a reason and the means for further struggle.
Bell’s assessment was pretty glum, initially inspiring heated resistance at both ends of the political spectrum. Recent developments strongly suggest that the picture he paints of American racism was, at least in a sense, far too pessimistic. Unfortunately, discovering that Derrick Bell was only half-wrong is an introduction to a much more troubling epoch ahead.
Americans often think of race as though it were real, a concrete biological status, a fact of nature. Bell’s analysis forces us to look past race as a condition and instead recognize it as a concept defined by a function it performs. Biases and prejudices related to heritage, tribe, language, religion and other factors are a universal human condition every culture must manage. Race, as it is experienced here, is a uniquely American notion. “Black” and “white” as we understand them are concepts invented here to preserve a slave economy in an otherwise free society.
Here’s a strangely hopeful and yet terribly dangerous possibility. Race as an organizing principle in our culture is weakening and perhaps even dying. A younger generation born after the death of Jim Crow has increasingly little sense of “whiteness” compared to their ancestors, so little in fact that race is ceasing to function for a majority of them as a pillar of political organization. Bell may actually have been wrong about the permanence of racism in the US – and that may give rise to a frightening problem.
Happy as we might be to prove Bell wrong on the permanence of racism, he nonetheless seems to have been right about the centrality of race to our political order. Our slowly advancing success in the battle to dismantle white supremacy is weakening load-bearing walls in our democracy. Alliances that held together our uniquely “classless” political/economic system have been rendered meaningless by the decline of racism as legitimate political expression. We have not yet figured out how to replace the functions that racism performed in making America operate effectively.
This problem is most apparent in the decline of our so-called “Middle Class.” Observers from elsewhere in the world are almost as baffled by our middle class myth as they are by our racial complexities. Millionaire politicians and construction workers are “middle class.” College professors and postal workers are “middle class.” Everyone who works for a living, or worked for a living at one point in life, regards themselves and each other as “middle class” no matter how obviously wealthy, poor, or disadvantaged they are – so long as they are white or want to identify with whites. In America, “middle class” simply means “us.”
Some point to income or wealth concentration to explain current American middle class angst, but that concentration is not new. Incomes and wealth have been moving toward the extremes since the end of the World War II era. If anything, those statistics paint a hopeful picture as the number of people gaining ground, especially in recent years far exceeds those declining.
Voters on the left have always worried about income inequality. Sanders’ fans in a different era worried just as much about the supposed unfairness of Kennedy’s tax cuts as they did about Reagan’s or Bush’s. What’s new is concern about income fairness on the political right. That concern has nothing to do with income inequality per se. The right has discovered a new interest in fairness because of who is benefiting from this economy. Dig into the numbers and the real source of angst becomes clear. Conservatives are not concerned about families losing ground, they are concerned about which families are losing ground.
A far more open, free, competitive and dynamic economy is opening up opportunity for the first time to minority families. Despite the significant headwinds and setbacks, it is those families who are capitalizing on this chance to move up in relative terms. The only demographic group losing ground in absolute terms is lower-income, mostly rural whites with little education. This, along with a black President, is the only new or recent development in our sixty year trend toward income inequality. It isn’t hard to understand what white voters mean when they howl their determination to “take our country back.”
A vast expansion of freedom and wealth spawned by global capitalism is remaking economies and cultures all over the world. Here in America those forces are slowly crushing an old order that reserved special protections for a large class of people on the basis of racial identity and at the expense of racial minorities. Race itself is breaking down as a means of defining identity. The decline of this racial order is a happy development, so hopeful and promising that many smart, insightful thinkers until recently thought it might be impossible.
For two centuries, America stunted class conflicts by channeling the frustrations of lower-income voters into racial discrimination. The brazen quote from Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stevens cited above sums up the formula for American racial unity. Less fortunate whites, locked out of access to opportunity, were persuaded to lay down their lives to protect wealthy slave holders in exchange for the borrowed dignity of an ersatz “whiteness” and a collection of small-scale economic preferences set aside for them alone. That same maneuver succeeded over and over in American history to paste over resource conflicts that might otherwise have had a very different outcome. Imagine, for example, if blacks had been allowed to participate in the 19th century labor movement.
That logic of whiteness was not unique to the Southern states. To varying degrees around the country it prevailed to form the core of a common American identity. Remove the dignity and privilege that has always accompanied a white identity in America you will have to replace it with something – quickly. In a morally complex sense, less advantaged white Americans have a valid point about the unfairness of this emerging order. They are, in a very real sense, writing the check that pays for a more just and prosperous society for everyone else. More on that to come.
Every new achievement brings fresh evolutionary challenges in its wake. The problems we face now are in some sense enviable, but we need to work fast to capitalize on their promise. We desperately need to build a new template for American representative government before the roof of the old one crashes down on our heads.
History’s best explanation of the role and persistence of racism, the definitive clip from the film Mississippi Burning: