One of the odd things about our era is that 50 years after the great civil rights era, ugly realities that the black community knows all too intimately are finally being recognized by the broader society. The question is whether constructive change will result.
This Sunday, The New York Times, based on its own exhaustive study of tens of thousands of traffic stops, reported that blacks are far more likely to be stopped, and then arrested and sometimes brutalized, for minor traffic infractions than are whites. The piece, focusing on the relatively moderate city of Greensboro, North Carolina, provides more detail than has ever been reported in a major press account. This was no surprise to the black community, which lives these realities daily.
Since Ferguson, the press has been paying more attention to the killings of young black men by police. The pattern is not new; only the intensified press coverage is.
The media has also been shining a belated spotlight on the fact that people of color are far more likely to be jailed for minor offenses for which whites generally are released in their own recognizance, or allowed to make modest bails.
We are also getting far more coverage of the racial disparities in who gets sentenced to prison for what crimes and for how long. This wasn't really “news” either. It just didn’t get the attention it deserved.
To add insult to injury, it’s shocking (and not entirely surprising) that as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voting rights of African Americans are being taken away by right-wing state governments, using the very techniques that the 1965 act prohibited—techniques that were legalized after the fact by a partisan Supreme Court.
In the South of the 1980s and 1990s, there were biracial voting coalitions that elected economically centrist and racially moderate governors and senators to statewide office, even in the Deep South. Bill Clinton of Arkansas was one such governor. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee was one such senator.
Other racial moderates elected by coalitions of blacks and whites included Democratic governors Jim Hunt (1977–1985; 1993–2001), Mike Easley (2001–2009) and Beverly Perdue (2009–2013) of North Carolina, Richard Riley of South Carolina (1979–1987), Zell Miller (1991–1999) and Roy Barnes (1999–2003) of Georgia, and even Ray Mabus (1988–1992) and Ronnie Musgrove (2000–2004) in Mississippi—not to mention several Democrats elected in more ambiguously southern places like Florida and Texas. And several senators as well.
Those days are just about gone. The Republican Party in the Deep South is a mostly white party and the Democrats mostly a black party. The GOP has successfully played the race card, and biracial governing coalitions are getting scarce.
Today, there are no Democratic governors in the 13 states of the old Confederacy (except for Virginia, which has had a huge influx of northerners), and a shrinking number of Democratic state legislators. To be sure, 2014 was a worse wipeout than usual for Democrats, but emblematic of a trend. 2012, when Barack Obama was re-elected, was also losing year for Democrats in the South.
It is increasingly looking as if the period of biracial coalitions in the South was analogous to the brief window of statistical “integration” in the case of a town or neighborhood that is flipping from mostly white to mostly black. For about one generation, the moderate remnants of the once-dominant Democratic Party, people like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, could get elected statewide, by appealing to Yellow Dog Democrats (people who’d vote for a yellow dog running as a Democrat) and newly enfranchised blacks.
But then the South reverted to its mostly segregated and structurally racist self. Yellow Dog whites got entirely comfortable voting for Republicans.
The relevance of this bitter history is that the region of the nation—the former Confederacy—that most needs to come to terms with the racial realities finally being exposed and discussed nationally is in no political position to do so.
It’s one thing to belatedly disown a symbol like the Confederate flag. It’s another to root out a pattern of police harassment that is deeply rooted in the ruling cultures of one city and town after another.
Not that the North has much to brag about. The Times piece on traffic stops showed that blacks were four times as likely to be arrested in traffic stops in North Carolina—but that blacks relative to whites were far more likely to be searched during traffic stops in Chicago than in Greensboro.
Not to be too pessimistic—it’s true that over the long term, the South is trending demographically more Democratic. But that assumes blacks will be allowed to vote.
So we have a huge disconnect between the realities being exposed and discussed nationally—and the willingness of ruling elites, especially in the South, to discuss them.
What next? Just as demands for justice that bubbled up from the black community (with support of decent whites) finally forced the nation to pay attention half a century ago, this must happen again. What’s appalling is that as a nation we seem to take a step forward only to take a step back.
We are fighting battles that we thought we won in the 1960s. Structural racism still runs far deeper than the victories of a single generation.