Democracy drowns in the deep south

Race and Democracy - Faded Dreams
September 22, 1995

In his short story, "Going to Meet the Man", James Baldwin describes a lynching which the narrative's central white character (now a policeman suppressing civil rights activists) attended as a child: the victim, dying slowly and agonisingly, hung from a tree as the local white community held a picnic around the lurid scene. In Race and Democracy, lynchings are egregiously quotidian. Among them, Adam Fairclough's description of that of W. C. Williams in October 1938 is reminiscent of Baldwin's story: "Members of the mob stabbed and beat Williams, hanged him from an oak tree, and shot at his body for about ten minutes. By the time Williams's corpse was cut down, thousands of whites had visited the scene. At one time cars were parked along the highway for over a mile."

This wicked incident illustrates the brutality and ruthlessness with which white Americans - in the north and south - maintained pernicious segregated race relations and black American oppression in the 100 years after 1880. In his impressively researched study, Fairclough provides an outstanding account of how this system operated in Louisiana (the state that provided the test case for the 1896 Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson, legitimising segregation). It is a monumental achievement. By concentrating on a single state, and paying careful attention to variations between counties and parishes within it, Fairclough advances our knowledge of race relations in the United States, demonstrating how tentacular white violence against black Americans was and how race relations rested upon nefarious force (commonly orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan or Citizens Councils), corruption, prejudiced and illiberal white judges, complicit police and often anodyne federal responses. As he notes, "segregation did not merely denote separateness; it also embodied the white belief in black inferiority". For white supremacists segregation was an instrument of racial warfare; imputing inferiority to black Americans was their principal nom de guerre.

Marshalling a range of original archival material, Fairclough traces the evolution of the civil rights movement in Louisiana, particularly the role of the legalistic National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (whose leader, A. P. Tureaud, was the state's only black lawyer in 1947) and the "direct action" Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). He documents the efforts of the former to win legal victories over state and local laws, and the energetic initiatives of the latter to register black voters. Both agendas were keenly opposed, and, from the 1950s, increasingly violently. White racists proved strict martinets. Fairclough's account of parts of Louisiana and some of its cities are devastating indictments. In Shreveport the civil rights movement "ground to a halt in the face of police intimidation and Klan violence". In Bogalusa, Washington county, members of the Ku Klux Klan roamed the streets dispensing its baleful justice with impunity and crushing the Bogalusa Voters' League. Fairclough takes the measure of this malign Klan violence, especially in the areas bordering Mississippi: "The growth of the Ku Klux Klan, the complicity of many law enforcement officials, and the refusal of the federal government to assume responsibility for curbing racist violence sounded a death knell for the philosophy of non-violence that once infused CORE with optimism and idealism."

Fairclough is generous to Louisiana's famous populist, Huey Long, arguing that he not only stimulated black Americans politically but rarely played crude racist cards. Long's observation that "you could feed all the 'pure whites' in Louisiana 'with a nickel's worth of red beans and a dime's worth of rice'" was widely appreciated by blacks, deflating the state's white supremacists. Not all white Louisianans or Americans colluded in white supremacy. Fairclough reports courageous actions by individual judges standing against the tide of communitarian racism, exceptional acts of bravery by white CORE activists (equalling that of their black colleagues) and honesty from many Department of Justice officials and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. However, the attempts of the latter to defuse violence and to enforce voting rights often proved futile and faced violent resistance.

Regrettably, Fairclough's account of Louisiana's wrenching racial history concludes with two unhappy developments. First, not only did the individual black schoolchildren who first entered so-called integrated schools (in which they often constituted a tiny minority) endure a miserable time, including on occasions overt racism from teachers, but segregated schooling survived de facto as whites abandoned city areas. The problem of inadequate schooling for black American children persists. Second, he discusses the political emergence of David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who won the Republican nomination for the gubernatorial election in 1991. Race and racial divisions have returned in bellicose fashion as the dominant issue in the state's politics.

Race and Democracy should be compulsory reading for those interested in the affirmative action debate, whose participants often conduct themselves with breathtaking ahistoricism. Critics of affirmative action appear immune to, or ignorant of, the adamantine effects of America's segregated race relations in the century before the 1970s. This period included not only the criminal disenfranchisement of black voters in southern states but segregated race relations in federal government agencies, in the US Armed Services until the 1950s, in federal penitentaries, and the fostering of segregated housing through federal mortgage insurance schemes. The consequences of this malevolent coagulation for black Americans in the labour market, in residential housing and in education should be glaring to even the most myopic of observers.

It is to the fundamental problem motivating affirmative action that Martin Carnoy's thoughtful and elegant study, Faded Dreams, is directed. Addressing the problem of persistent black American underachievement - "a generation after the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, the American landscape in the 1990s is still marked by most of the problems those efforts were meant to solve" - Carnoy finds three common explanations wanting: individual inadequacy; entrenched and systemic racism in America's institutions; and the effects of economic restructuring. Carnoy sifts the evidence for each explanation and introduces some of his own statistical analysis. On a range of empirical criteria and tests - including wage levels and educational attainments by race and gender - Carnoy argues it is political decisions and ideology that are fundamental to either the improvement or the emasculation of black Americans' economic prospects and integration into US society. Although Carnoy is arguably overly sanguine about the positive effects of the New Deal, he is none the less correct in imputing significance to it as a government programme ameliorating black Americans' income and education and tackling discrimination and racism.

One pertinent example he gives of the deleterious effects of segregated race relations is industrial training: segregation enabled whites to exclude black Americans from apprenticeships and skilled trades. This systematic deskilling of black workers "guaranteed that minorities would remain available as low-paid, unskilled laborers, first in the South and then in the industrial North, and it protected white workers from competition from black skilled labor". Such imbalances in the labour market have yet to be redressed, contra the bilious critics of affirmative action.

Carnoy's preferred explanation and recommendations are interventionist: "Black inequality will not be solved by the free market." As Carnoy adjures, the federal government has always played a role in the position of black Americans - for instance, upholding and then dismantling segregated race relations. In terms of improving black Americans' labour market position, he maintains that the "single biggest drop (about half of the total) in black wage discrimination occurred between 1959 and 1973, and it came about both from federal legislative action in the early 1960s and from a Supreme Court that gave the legislation broad interpretation. This was the result of direct federal intervention in schools and labor markets." Carnoy stresses the politics of race and class as lying at the heart of contemporary problems. Politics is about power and ideology, and in the US, Carnoy contends, race is integral to American politics; it cannot be subsumed into class though the two are related. He adumbrates: "Economic inequality in the US still has an important racial component and I a government with the will to reduce racial inequality can, by its general ideological stance toward race and by specific public policies, achieve that goal." This conclusion comes after a historically sensitive explication of federal interventions and executive leadership (of the sort demonstrated by Harry Truman and especially Lyndon Johnson). Carnoy also purports to demonstrate how the ideological conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years - notably the reduced commitment to affirmative action and pro-business anti-labour policies - stimulated greater inequality among black Americans.

If there is a shared lesson from these two books it is that the federal government's policies and actions matter fundamentally for both the political rights of black Americans and their economic position. In Race and Democracy, Fairclough demonstrates the decisive importance of federal officials from the 1950s in desegregating Louisiana and in establishing the first semblance of equality for black Americans. For Carnoy, it is the federal government's role in promoting wage equality and limiting labour market discrimination that is uppermost. The implication of both studies, therefore, is that for race relations in the US to develop requires an unwavering federal commitment and appropriate policies: if affirmative action is abandoned this should not mean an end to federal activism.

Desmond King is a fellow and tutor in politics, St John's College, Oxford.

Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana, 1914-1972

Author - Adam Fairclough
ISBN - 0 8203 1700 4
Publisher - University of Georgia Press
Price - $34.95
Pages - 610

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