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"Market-Based Solutions"

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Nearly everything worth saying about this week’s Parents Involved decision has probably already been covered in previous threads (and elsewhere), but I want to highlight one piece of relevant historical obfuscation that joins several right-wing talking points about the history of and appropriate remedies for racial segregation. It’s axiomatic, of course, that your garden-variety wingnut sallies forth into the world with a severely limited understanding of the history of race in the US; as near as I can tell, the second half of the 19th century is an especially dark void for these people, who are prone to utter all kinds of bloated inanities about the Civil War, reconstruction, immigration and optional, imperial wars. That period really has it all — expanding government authority, massive demographic change, violent social conflict in every region of the nation, corporate growth, military revitalization — and nearly every time conservatives open their mouths on any of these subjects, they fuck it up royally.

The latest iteration of this trend comes by way of Captain’s Quarters, where Ed observes that

[r]acial preferences may have suffered a body blow, but we still have not succeeded in pushing market-based solutions to resolve the vestiges of the government failures to enforce the 14th Amendment for 100 years.

Um. Say what?

First of all, if I read Ed correctly, he’s expressing a geniune lament that radical reconstruction efforts — including state-level, race-based policies dedicated to integrating public schools — amounted to what Carl Schurz famously described as a “revolution, but half accomplished.” Good for him. As I gather from reading conservative blogs this week, it takes remarkable moral courage to denounce the “vestiges” of Jim Crow. I’m heartened to see that we’ve moved beyond the agonizing denunciations of Dred Scott and chattel slavery. (As a side note, could we at last retire the noxious metaphor of “vestigial” racism — as if economic inequities, vote suppression, and other ills were nothing more than vanishing traces of a regrettable past, or a shrunken, useless organ like an appendix? Among other things, racial resentment has been a vital part of conservative electoral success since the 1960s. However we choose to characterize that fact, “vestigial” isn’t the accurate term.)

But what is this “failure” of which the Captain speaks? As Ed is doubtless aware, by the 1872 Presidential election, the Republican Party had essentially abandoned the project of reconstruction to prevent the defection of Northern white voters from its ranks; by 1874, only a handful of states governments had not yet been “redeemed” by white supremacists; and beginning with the Slaughterhouse cases in 1873, the Supreme Court began narrowing the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment in a way that flatly ignored its legislative history and the easily discernible intent of its framers. In other words, “the government” did notfail to enforce its own Constitution for 100 years — this would imply that some sort of genuine attempt had been made in that direction.

Instead, “the government” allowed “the market” to determine that blacks were unfit for equal citizenship, that they were biologically and socially inferior, that they were to be governed by a regime of petty coercion and extraordinary violence, that they were uniquely suited to unskilled labor, and that all of this was to function as permanently as possible. “The market” also satisfied a healthy white demand for coon songs, racist postcards, horrid novels and films, and souvenirs from the latest lynchings — all of which helped to rationalize the broader architecture of white supremacy. Now, one could make the case (as liberal opponents of segregation sometimes did) that Jim Crow laws were an unjust interference with the socio-economic order and that Jim Crow regulations — however much they conformed to popular (i.e., white) preferences — weren’t actually expressions of the mystical priorities of “the market.” But as Nancy Cohen points out in her excellent work on late 19th century liberalism, most of the “market-based solutions” to the post-Civil War racial landscape went no further than boarding up the Freedman’s Bureau, removing federal troops from conquered lands, and muttering pieties about hard work, personal responsibility, and the immutable laws of the economy as Southern blacks were siphoned into debt peonage.

The larger point is this: As our courts narrow the remedies available to correct racial disparities in education, we’re going to have to endure a lot of nonsense about how “market-based solutions” like coupons “vouchers” will cleanse our souls. Clarence Thomas and others will ask us to worry about “elites bearing racial theories” — a statement so historically ignorant as to deserve a separate post — while asking us to trust the better angels of the market. It’s worth bearing in mind that “the market” has been part of the problem all along.

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