In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest book, We Were Eight Years In Power, he begins with a fascinating essay about the Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War. He argues that this brief experiment in black empowerment, with blacks voting and holding elected office in the former states of the Confederacy, ended because of white resentment and fear. The resentment came from seeing their former slaves so quickly elevated to positions of superiority. The fear came is seeing those same slaves govern effectively. Coates quotes W.E.B. Dubois, who wrote, “If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”
I’ve thought a lot about that essay and quote in the past week. The parallels to what has happened in the United States over the past year are startling. While many white conservatives express hatred for Barack Obama and his administration, when challenged to point out his failings they seldom offer much beyond conspiracy theories and racist rhetoric. They never mention his success in pulling the nation out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. They ignore his reinvigoration of the Justice Department, his expansion of civil rights and healthcare for many and the lowest number of corruption scandals in modern presidential history. While I know they will never admit it, I suspect many white conservatives resented and feared Obama, not because he was a bad President, but because he was such a good one.
During both the Reconstruction period and the Obama presidency, one of the central tenets of white racism was proven false – white superiority. In both situations, it was not the failings of black leaders that was so infuriating to many whites as much as it was their success. In both situations, the response of white people was to reassert their dominance. In the 1890’s, this meant disenfranchising blacks, passing Jim Crow laws and legislating the superiority that had proven so false. In 2016, this meant electing the most inferior and openly racist of the possible white options for president. Though my conservative friends like to claim they voted for Trump because they hated Clinton so much, this does not explain why they chose Trump over more worthy Republican white men and women in the primaries. Whether conscious or not, Trump was a response to a successful black president.
Oddly, all of this has made me reconsider the power of white supremacy in America. There was a time when white racism was built on a conviction of white superiority, but that claim seems increasingly hollow. People of color are excelling in nearly every area of our national life. White people are being replaced by people of color in every strata of society. While whites often diminish their hard won success as some kind of affirmative action, this argument is harder and harder to sustain. Consider the one place in our culture where there is a clearly level playing field – sports. In nearly every sport, it is people of color who are the best players.
Or consider the recent events in Charlottesville. The chants of white supremacists reveal a far less confident white psyche. Gone were the claims of black inferiority that once characterized the Klan. This generation of white racists chanted “We will not be replaced” instead of “We cannot be replaced.” In response to “Black lives matter,” they felt the need to argue “White lives matter.” When a white supremacist has to argue that white lives matter, something significant has shifted. Gone is their confidence in their ability to succeed in an American meritocracy. They expose their fears of inferiority even as they champion white supremacy. They guard their white privilege so carefully because they worry that without it they cannot succeed.
For several years, I’ve been worried about white supremacy. I’ve begun to fear white inferiority. When people with inferiority complexes hold power, they almost always use that power to reassure themselves and diminish others. Indeed, only in diminishing others can they feel superior. For whites with such a complex, electing Donald Trump must have been wonderfully reassuring. They did not elect him because he represented the best the white race could offer, but because he mirrored their own sense of inferiority. They saw in him their many insecurities and, every time he claimed something was the best or the greatest, they heard their own defensive bluster. His election confirmed their hope that they still lived in an America where an inferior white man had more power than any woman or person of color.
Unfortunately, while I understand the events of this past year more deeply, this understanding does not bring me much comfort. Trump’s systemic dismantlement of every Obama policy is too reminiscent of the actions of resentful and fearful whites during the Reconstruction. “Making America Great Again” is not much different than the efforts of white southerners in the 1880s to make blacks slaves again. History tells us that whites with an inferiority complex are capable of incredible ugliness to retain their power and privilege. It is also teaches that liberal whites can be easily distracted. Much of the impetus for abandoning efforts at reconstructing the South ended when Northern whites faced an economic recession in 1873.
In the days since the Trump election, I have watched many of my white friends distance themselves from the role of racism in our culture and politics. Progressives have spoken out against the identity politics of people of color while completely ignoring the white identity politics of the Republican Party. Democrats are being told they must reassure the white working class. Clearly racist policies are being disguised as efforts to combat voter fraud, or eliminate discrimination against whites, or bring back law and order. These are not new arguments or strategies. Indeed, they all saw their creation in the 1870s when whites used them to reassert their supremacy.
President Obama often cited the Martin Luther King, Jr quote, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It fit his hopeful optimism. President Obama also reassured Ta-Nehisi Coates – in a pre-election interview – that Donald Trump could not win. I fear this optimism may have blinded him to a historic reality. The Reconstruction period demonstrated that racial progress gained by the death of nearly 700,000 Americans in four years of bloody conflict could be largely lost in a matter of a few years. What if the arc of the universe is merely half of a circle leading us back to the immoral place we began?
Such concerns explain why Ta-Nehisi Coates subtitles his book, An American Tragedy. While I share his deep concerns and fears about the Trump presidency and what it reflects, I hope that conclusion premature. Looking back, I wonder what our nation could have become if white Northern progressives had persisted in their insistence that southern blacks be protected and empowered. How much sooner would we have elected a black president? How much stronger would we be as a nation? That seems such a lost opportunity.
In the weeks ahead, I plan to study the Reconstruction period; a period sadly and intentionally lacking from American education. How did progressives fail? How was white supremacy able to reassert itself? How can we avoid such ugliness again? Unlike President Obama and Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice. Justice only comes when those committed to equality combat those, who in their feelings of inferiority, must champion and enforce their superiority. If our nation is in the midst of a cultural civil war, it is imperative that those of us allied with people of color do not fail them again. It is time to truly reconstruct America.