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Race and the Stunted Growth and Rapid Decline of American Liberalism

Race casts a long shadow in the United States. Since the founding of the republic, race has been built into the structure of American society, often explicitly but more often in subtle, invisible ways.  Race, as I use the term here, is a social category created by the relegation of certain people to an inferior social status based on their inherited characteristic.  Race is created through both social and psychological processes and yields a class of human beings that can easily be exploited (compelled to work for less than the full value of their labor) and excluded (barred from access to key societal resources).

The ultimate expression of exploitation and exclusion, of course, is slavery, an institution that was a principal source of wealth in colonial America, especially in the south.  Although few realize it, In many ways it was the threat to slavery that prompted the American Revolution itself.  Prior to 1776, New Englanders had been in the forefront of anti-British agitation, with loud and forceful complaints about taxation, representation, and constraints on commerce; but southerners remained quiescent and were reluctant to join the northern insurgency.  After all, Britain provided the market for their high-value, slave-produced commodities and, hence, British markets were the basis of their wealth, and they had no particular grievances about taxation or representation as long as the money flowed.

What tipped the balance in favor of revolution was a British legal ruling, the Somerset Decision of 1772, in which the Court of the King’s Bench ruled that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced for any reason, moral or political; but only by positive law,” which as another way of saying that in the absence of an act of Parliament, there was no legal basis for slavery in Britain.  With this ruling the days of slavery were clearly numbered in the British Empire (and it was indeed formally abolished in 1833), thus providing southerners with a specific grievance against the Crown and a reason for joining the northern revolution

The alliance of north and south led to independence, of course, and the critical conundrum facing the new nation was how to create a republic in which all men were created equal yet at the same time allowed chattel slavery to exist for people of African origin.  The U.S. Constitution artfully accomplished this end without ever mentioning slavery, Africans, or Negroes, following what the late Leon Higginbotham called the “principle of non-disclosure.”  It did so by defining specific rights for all persons except  “those bound to service or labor” and certain “other persons.”  The Constitution of 1789 not only allowed slavery to exist, but ensured its persistence for the indefinite future.  Provisions such as the 3/5 clause, the Electoral College, and an appointed Senate (with its filibuster rule) gave disproportionate power to slave states, and by requiring super-majorities in Congress and the states to ratify amendments, the framers guaranteed that slavery would be unlikely ever to be overturned using normal constitutional procedures.

In the end, of course, slavery was not overturned through constitutional means but by a bloody civil war.  With union troops occupying the south, Congress passed and the states ratified the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution to abolish slavery, guarantee equal protection under the law, and affirm black suffrage.  Although the civil liberties, social position, and economic standing of African Americans advanced markedly during Reconstruction, the withdrawal of federal troops from the south in 1877 led to the reconstitution of white supremacy under a new system of racial subordination known as Jim Crow.  This system, which mandated strict racial segregation in all spheres of southern life, was given the stamp of approval by the U.S. Supreme Court in its infamous 1896 Plessy Decision, which adopted the fiction that racial segregation simply produced separate spheres for blacks and whites that were “separate but equal.”

From the late 19th century onward, the north turned its attention not to securing black liberties in the south but to building wealth and making money in the north, leaving the south free to restore a plantation economy based on the exploited labor of African Americans, this time based on sharecropping and indentured servitude rather than chattel slavery.  Laissez faire capitalism in the north and plantation agrarianism in the south yielded stark economic divides in both regions and inequalities of income and wealth rose to new heights through the first decades of the 20th century.  By the late 1920s, so little buying power was located outside of the wealthy classes in the north that aggregate demand was insufficient to sustain its industrial economy, while crop failures and boll weevil infestations in the south devastated agrarian production.

As the global economy simultaneously shut down and nations turned inward by erecting new barriers to trade and investment, the U.S. economy collapsed in late 1929 to usher in a decade of hardship and economic depression, creating the conditions for a political realignment away from the Republican consensus that had dominated American politics since the Civil War.  Franklin Roosevelt built a new reform movement in the Democratic party by bringing together northern liberals, western progressives, Midwestern farmers, urban workers, and most importantly, white southerners.  With sizeable majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House firmly in Roosevelt’s hands, liberalism had its heyday as Democrats enacted a New Deal characterized by progressive taxation, income redistribution, farm supports, financial regulation, federally guaranteed bargaining rights for workers, and the creation of a serviceable social safety net for most citizens under the auspices of the Social Security Act, which provided basic financial support for poor, disabled, elderly, and unemployed Americans.

The Democratic coalition that created and sustained the New Deal was a disparate congeries of interests, however, and the balance of power was held by southern Democrats.  After decades of one party rule in the south, southerners had accumulated the greatest seniority and controlled virtually all key leadership and committee posts in both the House and Senate.  No piece of legislation could conceivably pass Congress without their concurrence.   Although southerners were economic populists they were social conservatives, and vehemently so when it came to  the issue of race.  They would only support the progressive economic policies of Roosevelt’s New Deal so long as they did not disturb the racial status quo.  As a result, every piece of New Deal legislation was thoroughly racialized to exclude African Americans from coverage or to delegate to states the authority to do the excluding.

As Ira Katznelson has exhaustively documented in his book When Affirmative Action Was White, the need to placate southern politicians on the issue of race is the primary reason why the American welfare state never developed to the same extent as other in advanced industrial nations and reached its natural limit at a much earlier state.  At the insistence of powerful southern Congressmen and Senators, for example, two huge occupational categories—farm workers and domestic servants—were  excluded from coverage under the New Deal’s social and labor legislation.  These two categories employed roughly 90% of all black workers in 1930 (but just a quarter of whites), deliberately leaving gaping holes in the social safety net through which millions of African Americans could and did  fall.  Even in the industrial sector, labor laws were carefully written to permit segregated unions and dual union contracts. The Federal Housing Administration, meanwhile, explicitly excluded lending to black borrowers and black neighborhoods and the GI Bill created segregated VA hospitals and clinics and mandated that state officials, not federal administrators, would determine eligibility for veterans’ educational grants and loans.

In short, African Americans were systematically excluded from the liberal welfare state that built wealth, income, and security for the mass of Americans in the postwar era.  Liberal social and economic programs were supported by white southerners, and to an unappreciated  extent by white ethnic workers in the north, only to the extent they systematically excluded African Americans.  The New Deal coalition would prove to hang together only so as long as the Democratic Party was able to elide the blatant contradiction between its universal egalitarian principles and its deliberate racist exclusions, a conundrum that Gunnar Myrdal in 1944 aptly labeled “an American Dilemma.”

The political reality was that Southern Democrats were always prepared to abandon the coalition at the slightest hint of black enfranchisement.  The first sign of trouble came in 1947 when northern unions began to achieve unexpected success in organizing black textile and service workers in the south, and in response southern populists quickly defected from the progressive coalition to join Republicans in backing anti-union labor legislation.  The Taft-Hartley Act undermined the ability of unions to organize by prohibiting the requiring of union membership and dues paying as a condition of employment, outlawing secondary labor actions such as boycotts, curtailing federal authority to investigate unfair labor practices, and instead empowering federal authorities to issue injunctions to stop collective labor actions whenever they were deemed to imperil “national health of safety.”  With the passage of this legislation, unionization stalled at around a third of the American workforce and began a long, slow decline that has continued to the present day.  Because of the politics of race, unionization in the United States reached a natural limit much earlier than in other industrial nations.

After the Second World War, the winds of racial change were blowing to strain the fragile fabric of the New Deal coalition.  Black soldiers returning from the war against fascism joined with progressive whites and northern liberals to push for civil rights, and with the United States assuming its self-designated Cold War mantle as “leader of the free world,” the racial contradictions American Dilemma became more difficult for the Democratic Party to finesse.  A turning point came in 1948, when the Democratic Party for the first time adopted a plank in the party platform that explicitly called for black civil rights.  President Truman followed up this declaration of principle by ordering desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The southern response was immediate and unambiguous. Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina led southern delegates out of the Democratic Party to form the States Rights Democratic Party and launch an insurgent run for the presidency as a “Dixiecrat.”  Although Truman went on to win the election in a tight three-way race, the foundering of the New Deal Coalition on the rocks of race was clearly foreshadowed by the fact that Thurmond carried the states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, thus breaking up the “solid south” for the first time since reconstruction.

With the Democratic Party’s progressive emergence as the champion of black civil rights, southerners increasingly looked to Republicans to protect them from federal interventions in states’ rights.  In 1952, the states of Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee voted to elect Dwight D. Eisenhower as the first Republican president since the Great Depression, ending the  two-decade lock on the White House by Democrats.  Eisenhower was a moderate Republican, however, and indeed by the standards of today’s Republican party he would be considered a deranged liberal.  He made little effort to scale back the welfare state created by Roosevelt and Truman and was easily reelected in 1956, picking up the additional state of Louisiana in the south.

In his second term, however, Eisenhower proved a grave disappointment to the south, first supporting and then signing the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which established a permanent civil rights office within the Justice Department.  Although the legislation had little practical effect in promoting racial change, it was of great symbolic importance as the first piece of civil rights legislation to clear congress since Reconstruction.  That same year Eisenhower very publicly defied Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus by placing the state’s National Guard under federal control and sending troops to escort nine black students into Little Rock Central High School to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brown decision of 1954, which retracted the Plessy decision of 1896.

The party preference southerners in the 1960 presidential election was thus far from clear.  As Eisenhower’s Vice President, the Republican candidate Richard Nixon could not distance himself too far from the Civil Rights Act or the events in Little Rock.  Although the Democratic Party platform explicitly called for “equal access for all Americans to all areas of community life, including voting booths, school rooms, jobs, housing, and public facilities,” the Democratic Candidate John F. Kennedy moved deliberately to shore up his right flank by picking a southerner, Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas, as his running mate.  Although a southerner, Johnson had not endeared himself to the cause of states rights, for it was he as Senate Majority Leader who had pushed through the 1957 Civil Rights Bill by breaking the filibuster of Strom Thurmond.

In protest over the choices open to them, Mississippi and Alabama sent uncommitted representatives to the Electoral College of 1960s and they ultimately cast their votes for Harry F. Byrd, a segregationist senator from Virginia.  Nonetheless John F. Kennedy won the Electoral College, carrying with Johnson’s help the states of Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, though not Florida or Virginia, which went for Nixon.  During the early years of the Kennedy Administration, the civil rights movement gained momentum and acts of civil disobedience in the south were met with a rising tide of civil violence that President Kennedy could scarcely ignore, prompting him in June of 1963 to introduce a civil rights bill to give “all Americans the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public… [and] greater protection for the right to vote.”

Following Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, Lyndon Johnson became President and in his first address to Congress stated that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”  Despite Kennedy’s martyrdom, it took all of Johnson’s formidable parliamentary skills to break a southern filibuster in the Senate, but he and his Senate allies finally succeeded and on July 2, 1964 he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.  As a southerner familiar with the depth of southern opposition to civil rights and a shrewd politician who understood the full well the implications of the Democrat’s definitive embrace of the issue, on the evening of the signing presidential aid Bill Moyers found Johnson despondent.  When asked why, Johnson prophetically replied “I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life, and yours.”

Being a shrewd politician, Johnson attempted to forestall the inevitable white backlash by expanding the economic pie in hopes that black gains would not come at white expense.  In many ways, the high tide of New Deal liberalism was reached with Johnson’s Great Society program of 1964-1968.  He declared a War on Poverty by passing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and creating the Office of Economic Opportunity.   Although Johnson handily won election in 1964, his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act and campaigned on a platform of states’ rights.  The widening fissure in the Democratic coalition was evident in his winning of four states in the deep south—Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.  From then on it was only a matter of time before Republicans would capitalize on the Democratic Party’s identification with black interests to systematically remove southern whites from the New Deal coalition and begin the process of dismantling the American welfare state.

In 1965 Johnson went on to orchestrate passage of the Voting Rights Act to guarantee black suffrage and passed a series of landmark laws designed to promote social spending, increase incomes for all, and advance his vision of the Great Society.  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act channeled funds to education; the Housing and Urban Development Act established a new cabinet agency to fund urban initiatives; and amendments to the Social Security Act established Medicare and Medicaid to provide health care to the elderly and the poor.  In 1966 other legislation established Model Cities Program, which authorized block grants to cities for health, education, housing, and employment; and in 1967 amendments to the Manpower Development and Training Act were passed to create jobs through the Concentrated Employment Program, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Work Incentive Program.  He culminated his remarkable string of legislative victories in 1968 with passage of the Fair Housing Act, finally prohibiting discrimination in the rental and sale of housing.

Johnson’s strategy of expanding civil rights while increasing social spending might have worked to ameliorate the white backlash but for his entanglement in the Vietnam War, which rendered further social spending fiscally unsustainable and eroded political support among liberals, young people, and minorities.  Although incomes rose, poverty rates fell, health improved, unemployment declined, and inequality fell for all Americans during the Johnson Administration, by 1968 black progress was increasingly seen as coming at the expense of whites, with affirmative action and school busing encountering growing resistance in the north and southern opposition remaining as implacable as ever.  The outbreak of urban rioting and rising crime rates in the late 1960s exacerbated white fears while rising black welfare usage and growing competition for jobs and education generating new resentment.  Meanwhile, federal efforts to promote integration in schools, neighborhoods, and the workforce made middle and working class whites increasingly uncomfortable.

By 1968 the disintegration of the New Deal coalition was in full flower.  Former Democratic Governor George Wallace of Alabama led a breakaway presidential campaign to lure southerners to his campaign of states’ rights under the banner of the American Independent Party.  Freed of his earlier link to President Eisenhower, Richard Nixon honed a new “southern strategy” in which he communicated to whites in subtle, coded language that as chief executive he would drag his feet on civil rights enforcement, cut social spending, and resist transfers to African Americans.  At the same time, he wooed northern blue collar ethnic groups by opposing school busing and forced integration of the workplace.

Strom Thurmond had by then switched to the Republican Party and campaigned on Nixon’s behalf and his southern strategy paid off for the Republicans when Nixon carried the states of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida.  Wallace, meanwhile, took Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Arkansas out of the Democratic column, leaving the party’s candidate Hubert Humphrey with a handful of Northeastern, Midwestern, and Pacific states, not enough to win election.  The New Deal consensus was gone.

As President, Richard Nixon quickly declared a “War on Crime,” a pointed and sardonic reference to Johnson’s War on Poverty, singling out “criminal elements which increasingly threaten our cities, our homes, and our lives,” coded references to black urban rioters (threatening cities) and black criminals (threatening homes and lives).  Since the 1950s the Supreme Court had been at the forefront of progress on civil rights, and to stem this tide Nixon initiated the Republican practice of appointing only “strict constructionists” as potential justices—people who were disinclined to use federal power to promote civil rights among the states.  His appointments included Warren Burger as Chief Justice along with Associate Justices William Rehnquist, Lewis Powell (a southerner), and after two failed attempts at other southern appointments, Burger’s longtime friend Harry Blackmun.

In the 1972 election Nixon won all states except Massachusetts, handing the Republicans a sweep of the former Confederacy for the first time in history. With this landslide behind him, in 1973 Nixon abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity, officially ending the War on Poverty.  In the domain of civil rights, he used the bully pulpit to label affirmative action as a quota program and sponsored legislation to halt school busing.  Nixon’s consolidation of conservative, anti-black power in the election of 1972 might have cemented the end of the New Deal but for the Watergate scandal, which forced him to resign and put a moderate Republican, Gerald Ford of Michigan, into the White House.

With conservative Republicans in temporary retreat and Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, in 1974 Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to ban discrimination in lending, which was duly signed into law by President Ford, to the dismay of southerners.  His pardon of Nixon for crimes committed during Watergate antagonized voters throughout the country, and led to the anomalous election of Jimmy Carter, a racially progressive former Democratic Governor of Georgia, to the White House.  Carter managed to win all states in the south except Virginia and in his administration Congress passed the last major piece of civil rights legislation.  The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act prohibited lending institutions from “redlining” neighborhoods and thus rendering them ineligible for loans on the basis of their racial competition.

Between 1957 and 1977, Congress had passed seven major pieces of civil rights legislation to put a definitive end to de jure segregation in the south and to outlaw discrimination in markets throughout the United States.  But the Civil Rights Era as over. The final dissolution of the New Deal Coalition, postponed for one presidential term by Nixon’s implosion during Watergate, finally occurred in 1980 with the landslide victory of Ronald Regan over Jimmy Carter.  Reagan and the Republicans did very well among white ethnic and blue collar constituencies in the north, but the nail in the coffin of the New Deal coalition was Regan’s decisive trouncing of Carter in every state of the former Confederacy save for Carter’s home state of Georgia.

After the 1980 elections, never again would the solid south support social or economic liberalism in the United States.  Whereas Senators from the south were still overwhelmingly Democratic at the end of the Carter Administration, by the end of the Reagan Administration al;l the Senators from Texas, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia were Republican and a Republican had been elected from the state of Alabama.  Those conservative”blue dog” Democrats who remained in office in southern states increasingly voted in lockstep with their Republican counterparts, giving conservatives effective control of the upper house.

As the party of Lincoln and Grant was transformed into the party of Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott, it became increasingly conservative both socially and economically.  Moreover, as the south went Republican, so did the Plains States, which by the 1980s were declining in population and increasingly inhabited by an aging white population antagonistic to rising tide of minorities  emerging on the more populous coasts.  In this context, Constitution left to us by the slaveholder framers of 1789 served to amplify the power of conservatives to provide a an effective check on progressive legislation even when the Democrats held, which was not often.  Whereas the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress 90% of the time between 1945 and 1980, and held both Congress and the White House 55% of the time, from 1980 through 2010 they held both houses of Congress just 40% of the time and controlled Congress and the Presidency just 15% of the time.

In sum, the wholesale defection of the south over the issue of race, and the concomitant loss of support among blue collar constituencies in the north over related race-issues such as busing, welfare, and affirmative action, brought a definitive end to the century of reform in the United States. With the south now solidly controlled by Republicans and the plains inhabited by older whites fearful of demographic change on the coasts, conservatives have been able to put together a durable coalition to accomplish their long-cherished dream of dismantling the New Deal and Great Society.  Progressive taxation and regulation have been abandoned in the economic sphere; welfare has been abolished and transfers cut in the social sphere; punishment has replaced rehabilitation in criminal justice; and huge federal deficits have deliberately been generated through unrestrained spending on the military, prisons, and national security, thus achieving the twin aims of “starving the beast” (crowding out social spending) and buying political loyalty (producing huge profits for well-connected crony capitalists).

The net effect of the political realignment is there for all to see.  Measures of income and wealth inequality have risen to their highest levels since 1929; three speculative boom-and-bust cycles since 1980 have battered the middle class and transferred wealth out of the real economy and into the pockets of a small number of financiers and corporate executives; more than a fifth of all children now live in poverty, a figure that rises to 36% among black children and 33% among Hispanic children; levels of public and private debt have risen to record levels; and the United States is falling behind the rest of the developed world with respect to health, education, infrastructure, economic growth, and investment.  Because of the lasting legacy of race, working and middle class Americans have repeatedly joined with the wealthy and the affluent to enact policies that are manifestly against their economic interests and detrimental to the long-term interests of the nation.  Such is the continuing power of race in the United States.

Douglas S. Massey is the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

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