I took note of the Civil Rights Act anniversary today in part because of the controversies over the racial history of the South revived by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which relied pretty heavily on the theory that jurisdictions which used to keep minority folk from voting can no longer be held to a different standard than anyone else. If you want a more explicit defense of the proposition that the (white) South is being unfairly persecuted by Yankee bigots who don’t understand the New South—you know, that capitalist paradise where African-Americans are flocking to enjoy the fruits of non-unionized labor and freedom from all that other welfare state crap—you can read Lee Habab’s half-whiny, half-triumphalist rant at National Review today.
But hard as Habab and John Roberts and so many others try to argue that discrimination against black folks in the Deep South is some sort of ancient scandal with no relevance today, you can’t much get around the fact that just 49 years ago Jim Crow was very much alive and as pervasive a feature of southern life for both races as fried food or hot weather or going to church on Sunday.
Is 49 years ago ancient history? Well, I haven’t headed off to the nursing home just yet, and I can certainly remember Jim Crow quite vividly. And I have a feeling that the millions of southern African-Americans still alive today who can remember experiencing Jim Crow from the less advantageous side of the racial barrier don’t consider it ancient history either.
What makes this “oh, get over it” attitude especially maddening is that the extraordinary effort that culminated in the enactment of the Civil Rights Act (and then the Voting Rights Act the next year) was necessitated by the refusal of the South to accept defeat in a war a century earlier and its successful resistance to the Civil Rights Amendments enacted to ensure the region didn’t just revert to its antebellum racial practices. The entire history of race relations in the South has been a story of racists taking the long view and outlasting the wandering attention span of those demanding change—who out of fatigue or competing priorities or their own prejudices “got over it” and left the South to its own devices.
As a southern expat who still spends a lot of time in the region, I am aware of the progress made and the forced but still genuine integration that has occurred and of the basic decency and good will that often saves southerners of both races from taking up the old hatreds. But I also know that behind the veneer of civility a significant percentage of white southerners, particularly but not exclusively those born before the civil rights revolution was consummated, don’t and probably never will think of black folks as equal to them in anything other than original sin, and still consider black folks the basic “problem” that politics exists to “solve.” Can I prove beyond a doubt that such contemporary phenomena as the refusal to accept an almost completely federally financed expansion of Medicaid by all but one state of the former Confederacy is mainly about race? No, but anyone who claims it’s not at all about race is either willfully ignorant or has succumbed to the anti-racism-is-the-real-racism brain fever that is today’s version of “separate but equal.”
The ultimate point is that the “discriminatory” special rules governing the South that conservatives find so offensive is actually pretty light penance for centuries of systematic denial of human rights to (depending on the particular time and place) nearly half or more than half the local population—which from the perspective of history just ended the day before yesterday, over the violent resistance of the perpetrators, who more or less continued their political and economic hegemony over the South without serious interruption.
How long should the South have to put up with the terrible indignity of being treated differently? Well, at least until most of the last victims of full-fledged, unapologetic Jim Crow persecution are laid to rest: maybe until 2031, the date when the last congressional extension of the Voting Rights Act (the extension casually pushed aside by Shelby County v. Holder) expires.
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