Have We Made Any Progress on Racial Politics?

I read two books on Reconstruction and one on the 1970’s recently and I’m pretty convinced that we’ve made almost no progress on racial politics since then. Policy yes, but politics no. In the long run demographics will diminish white political power, but in the short run, the Civil Rights era laws and policies are the only thing standing in the way of a sharp return to the Southern past:

After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot. North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia’s most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats.


  1. What Reconstruction books did you read?

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution and Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. To elaborate a bit, what’s interesting about both the aftermath of the Civil War and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement was that in both cases integration policy was quickly abandoned and never seen through. After the Civil War we got white terrorist violence fighting back against integration, and then “separate but equal” laws in the South which then became the law of the land with Plessy v. Ferguson. That persisted until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and then the ensuing largely-court-directed unraveling of the Jim Crow system. We had a good run in the 60’s where blacks got some very basic protections and the very worst of formal segregation was ended, but then echoing the situation after Reconstruction, it’s been Nixonian racial backlash politics ever since. We never did integration, we never actually desegregated, and so it’s not surprising to see findings like racial disparities actually increasing in PA in the last 50 years.

  2. You aren’t going to do much better than Foner. A useful companion volume would be Drew Gilpin Faust’s “Republic of Suffering.” Her book, better than most, describes the political exhaustion that often follows herculean efforts–and explains why we’re often left disappointed politically years later.

    The fact that the Civil War was, at best, fought in the north by a political coalition loosely grouped around preservation of the Union, coupled with the horrendous casualties of the war (often forgotten today) meant that there was little stomach left for a stern Reconstruction. We’ve had similar disappointments after World War II (denazification and the onset of the Iron Curtain) and World War I as well. We forget the pain of the loss and how it made people of those times see current events.

    Your analysis is very good–but even in my not very long lifetime I’ve seen huge positive changes for integration, and its important not to forget that. Your last link draws the key point for building opportunity for urban residents (in particular) who aren’t fully sharing in the return to growth of cities like Philadelphia (and hopefully Allentown).

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