In 1869, at the height of Reconstruction, Thomas Nast imagined an America where people of all races and ethnicities were free and equal. That dream would soon be destroyed.
As the election neared its end, in my dark times I thought a lot about the history of Reconstruction, which proved that history does not automatically move in a straight line towards progress. A breath-taking attempt at creating a multiracial democracy ended in violence, white backlash, and indifference from whites who had once supported Reconstruction. The 1876 election drove a nail in the coffin of Reconstruction, and the Democratic Party's slogan that year was "This Is A White Man's Country: Let The White Men Rule." An eleven year window of rights and opportunities for African-Americans was slammed shut, and legal equality would not be established again until the 1960s, almost a hundred years later.
Of course, we are only talking here about equality under the law, economic and social equality have proved much harder to secure. The last few years have seen a lot of activity pushing against structural racism, and I think it's hardly incidental that this happened with a black man in the White House. As during the original Reconstruction, when black men served in the House and Senate, having people of color in high positions was the most potent symbol of change.
What we see now looks like a backlash against it, and in my darker moments makes me think that the period from 1965 to 2016 may to future generations be akin to that of 1865 to 1877. The parallels are getting too clear for me not to see it. During the 1870s, the Supreme Court whittled away at the 14th Amendment, and when the black defenders of Colfax, Louisiana, were massacred by a white militia, the Court ruled that 14th Amendment protections did not apply, since it was a mob and not the state that had done it. (Even though the mob basically grabbed power in the state through their actions.) This makes me think of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Shelby case, which gutted the Voting Rights Act, and then unleashed a wave of suppression aimed at voters of color.
Leading the charge in the 1870s were the deplorables who called themselves "redeeemers": the KKK and white militias. These days we have our own deplorables, operating with impunity online and one of their leaders is poised to be the chief advisor to the president of the United States. They made themselves known after the election in a campaign of harassment intended to make people of color understand that this is a white man's country.
Those deplorables were always around though, then and now. In the original Reconstruction there was a time when the government stepped in and used the military to suppress the Klan. The Klan was there, but it was being fought and defeated. After 9/11 the deplorables attacked mosques and murdered Sikh men because they assumed their turbans meant that they were Muslim. Anyone who's spent any amount of time on the internet knows that racist trolls have been roaming cyberspace for quite some time. New social media platforms have basically let them run amok and made them so much more powerful.
However, back in the 1870s the issue was not just the "redeemers," but the politicians in the North, who began to back off their commitment to racial equality. They began to see the whole thing as a folly, and in any case, were too invested in white supremacy to be willing to fight to the death against it. They made the decision, consciously or unconsciously, to ignore racial inequality and the fate of freedmen and freedwomen. I am beginning to see the same thing happen right now among white liberals, who have got it in their heads that it is somehow impossible to appeal to the economic anxiety of working class whites while simultaneously advocating for diversity and equality. Exhibit A is Mark Lilla's piece in the Times today. They say "identity politics has failed" when it was a white identity movement that beat them! Not only is their perspective grounded in a massive misunderstanding, it also tends to act as if the concerns of people of color ought to be forever secondary to those of white people. Pieces like Lilla's basically amount to" "Shut up about being shot by the police, there's a mom from Altoona here who doesn't like talking about race!"
We are going to see a lot of this from white liberals in the coming years, I fear. This is why we need people in the streets holding their feet to the fire and holding them accountable. We want to think that there's no going back to pre-1965 America, but that's only because so many of us accept the myth of progress. It's exactly then that most Trump supporters thought that America was "great." The fact that birthright citizenship, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, is under assault today should be a big tell. Don't get complacent. Don't assume we've just progressed beyond the evil past. Don't let there be another ninety years of darkness. Don't let history repeat itself.