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White Backlash: A Defining Feature of American History

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Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace is shown in this Oct. 19, 1964 photo speaking in Glen Burnie, Md. at a rally supporting Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater. (AP Photo)

The historian Lawrence Glickman has a great essay that very strongly makes the case that white backlash is a defining feature of American history:

There was, then, nothing particularly novel about the constituent elements of white backlash to the civil-rights movement: its smoldering resentment, its belief that the movement was proceeding “too fast,” its demands for emotional and psychological sympathy, and its displacement of African Americans’ struggles with its own claims of grievance.

What is particularly noteworthy is that the white backlash in this case was in place before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. The pattern is this: American reactionary politics is nearly always preemptive, predicting catastrophe and highlighting potential slippery slopes. “White backlash,” after all, got its name in 1963, just months after African Americans in Birmingham risked attacks from police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses in order to demand justice, and immediately after Kennedy mooted the idea of substantive legislation—both events taking place well before the Civil Rights Act became law. What one reporter called “white panic” was driven by fears of “favoritism” and “special privileges” for African Americans—that white “workers would be forced out of their jobs to make way for Negroes,” as one article put it that year, when Jim Crow still prevailed. “Many of my people think the Negroes want to take over the country,” a midwestern Republican politician said in a Wall Street Journal article published on April 10 of the following year, still months before the Act’s passage. “They think there are things in the bill that just aren’t there, like forced sales of housing to Negroes and stuff like that.” White backlashers imagined coercion where it did not exist. They embraced a lexicon and posture of victimization that hearkened back to the era of Reconstruction and anticipated the deceiving, self-pitying MAGA discourse that drives reactionary politics in Donald Trump’s America.

Since reconstruction, many backlash campaigns have imposed a politics of white fragility and frustration onto racial-equality struggles. Reporting on the “hate vote” in The Saturday Evening Post, in October 1964, one month before the presidential election, Ben H. Bagdikian highlighted the “churning, emotional conflict within each voter,” by which he meant white people. He noted that the backlashers “are not against a better life for the Negro, but they are strongly against this being achieved at the cost of white tranquility.” The elevation of “tranquility” over equal justice for all was a hallmark of backlash discourse, which ranked white feelings over black rights.

Backlashers understood civil rights as zero-sum, and therefore treated campaigns for African American equality as an inexcusable undermining of what they saw as deserved white privileges and prerogatives. A New York Times poll revealed, in condensed form, the emotional landscape of the white backlash: “Northern white urbanites have no sympathy for the Negro’s plight, and believe the Civil Rights movement has gone too far, while a considerable percentage believes Negroes ‘don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them.’” The extension of sympathy, such as being in favor of a “better life for the Negro,” was, then, conditional on personal convenience and easily withdrawn. “In general, the persons interviewed were mildly in favor of a better break for Negroes—as long as it wouldn’t affect them personally,” the reporter Dave Allbaugh observed in 1963.

Near the end of the essay, Glickman goes on to show how the backlash narrative spread to other movements, noting that the women’s movement of the 70s faced a backlash before it even really got off the ground. And it seems to me anyway that the resentment at the core of the American right is now manifesting itself in the mask backlash, a particularly stupid and self-immolating form of owning of the libs. But most importantly, these politics are backlash are important because they demonstrate the very real structural limitations to American politics, at least until the distant and quite possibly impossible day when someone figures out how to move white people beyond these politics and into something that looks like class and racial solidarity. The 2016-era myth that the white working class was clearly looking for socialism has been thoroughly debunked by many electoral failures and only true diehards will still espouse it. White supremacy is the single biggest reason why America is such a screwed up country. Not dealing with that head on is a disaster for any attempt to reform or even revolutionize this nation. The more histories of this racism we get, the better.

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