Again, how did the traditional segregationist discourse, trimmed of a few unacceptable phrases, become the dominant discourse in American society by the 1980’s?
Selections from “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism”, “The Christian and Critical Race Theory, Part 2: The Segregationist Discourse and Civil Rights”, and “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America” on segregationist discourse:
If we truly seek to understand segregationists—not to excuse or absolve them, but to understand them—then we must first understand how they understood themselves. … [L]ike all people, they did not think of themselves in terms of what they opposed but rather in terms of what they supported. The conventional wisdom has held that they were only fighting against the rights of others. But, in their own minds, segregationists were instead fighting for rights of their own—such as the “right” to select their neighbors, their employees, and their children’s classmates, the “right” to do as they pleased with their private property and personal businesses, and, perhaps most important, the “right” to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government. To be sure, all of these positive “rights” were grounded in a negative system of discrimination and racism. In the minds of segregationists, however, such rights existed all the same. Indeed, from their perspective, it was clearly they who defended individual freedom, while the “so-called civil rights activists” aligned themselves with a powerful central state, demanded increased governmental regulation of local affairs, and waged a sustained assault on the individual economic, social, and political prerogatives of others. The true goal of desegregation, these white southerners insisted, was not to end the system of racial oppression in the South, but to install a new system that oppressed them instead. As this study demonstrates, southern whites fundamentally understood their support of segregation as a defense of their own liberties, rather than a denial of others’. (White Flight, p. 9)
I’ve always found Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 Inaugural Address particularly instructive. Delivered soon after Dr. King moved his operations from Albany to Birmingham, and just a couple months after the mass White riot following the court ordered enrollment of James Meredith in the University of Mississippi, Wallace’s address is a near perfect summary of the traditional segregationist discourse, captured all in one well-articulated speech.
He begins with a theme, consistent with Kruse’s suggestion above, that marks the speech from beginning to end: the struggle against integration was a struggle for freedom.
An easily identifiable list of themes quickly emerges as one listens to the speech, including states’ rights and federalism (the Confederate apologist’s mainstay), free enterprise, freedom of association, the primacy of private property, meritocracy as the goal of the Founders, and the presumption that all opposition is actually communism, tyranny, immorality, and atheism.
Last, as can be seen in the quotes above, segregationists did not consider themselves racists; they loved the “Negro” and wished the best for him—again, according to their own self-assessment. As Wallace stated in a 1968 Meet the Press interview, “Well, of course I don’t know what your definition of racism is. But I’m certainly not a racist.”
These principles, inherited from the Confederacy and refined in the fires of “forced” integration, have proven to be potent political ideals. Simply remove explicit references to “segregation” and much of this ideology predominates to this very day. In his 1964presidential bid, Barry Goldwater won every Deep South state by running on these very principles-as a Republican. Richard Nixon took these principles national in his own 1968presidential victory, though losing the Deep South to Governor Wallace (running third party) alone. But by 1972, Nixon had secured the whole of the South with this rhetoric, in his second term victory.
Finally, we come to the eight-year administration of President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)-the very era in which Critical Race Theory was born. Reagan’s “new conservative” movement hearkened directly back to the campaign of Barry Goldwater, taking Nixon’s conservatism to the next level. Not only did Reagan champion the law and order movement beyond any that had gone before, but he perfected the rhetoric of Southern segregationists like George Wallace. (I’d argue that, with only a handful of deletions, Wallace’s entire Inaugural Address could have been delivered by Ronald Reagan, and quite probably was delivered multiple times in aggregate over the course of his political career.) Every theme discussed above-states’ rights, federalism, radically free enterprise, freedom of association, increased privatization, the mythic view of American meritocracy, and opposition to public assistance, all couched in the polemics of anti-communism and civil religion-were the bases of his fabulously successful 1980 and 1984 campaigns. And, for the most part, these themes were successfully cast in the “race neutral” language of “equal protection under the law” and “color-blindness,” solidifying a new post-civil rights era compromise, viz., the commitment to an idealized formal equality absent the goal of substantive equality.
But take a longer view—follow the story forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century—and a different picture emerges, one that is both a testament to Buchanan’s intellectual powers and, at the same time, the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance.
For what becomes clear as the story moves forward decade by decade is that a quest that began as a quiet attempt to prevent the state of Virginia from having to meet national democratic standards of fair treatment and equal protection under the law would, some sixty years later, become the veritable opposite of itself: a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and the national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.
For all its fine phrases, what this cause really seeks is a return to oligarchy, to a world in which both economic and effective political power are to be concentrated in the hands of a few.
And from the start, as Calhoun’s calculations illustrate, the notion of unwarranted federal intervention has been inseparable from a desire to maintain white racial as well as class dominance. Not surprisingly, then, but with devastating consequences all around, attacks on federal power pitched to nonelites have almost always tapped white racial anxiety, whether overtly or with coded language.