If there is anything I've learned over the past few days, it's that most people have a weak grasp -- if any -- on the actual arguments being made by non-mainstream theorists and philosophers. This, of course, doesn't stop them from making bold claims
about what "liberals say"
(or whatever). And that, in turn, infuriates me, and I occasionally flip out
. It's particularly bad when folks act as if they don't need to know a group's actual argument and analysis in order to wax lyrical about how awful it is.
Hence, the "Radical Review." It's what it sounds like: I'll review the actual arguments of relatively out of the mainstream thinkers (generally on race) on a particular question or issue that seems to stick in the craw of the mainstream. By and large I am not offering my own opinion here -- just laying out the argument in a (hopefully) accessible, unprejudiced, and informed manner.
Today's issue can be summarized as follows: If America is "structurally racist", what explains civil rights progress over the past 60 years or so?
Excellent question! Radical writers on race have several hypotheses on what might be the cause of racial reform. But before we get into them, it's important to note that few would describe America's racial history as a straight forward progression. We have advances, but we also have relapses. Many would argue that, while things are better today than in 1958, they might be worse along some axes than in 1978. The legal protection afforded to race and commitment to overthrowing racial hierarchy, for example, has been beating a steady retreat for the past several decades. Some writers, such as Kimberle Williams Crenshaw
, would say that we are in a period of "retrenchment", during which racist structure rearticulates and reestablishes itself in the wake of liberal attacks. Furthermore, whatever progress has been made has come from a pretty high baseline. Insofar as momentum has stalled today, it has done so well prior to where we could say that systematic racial disadvantage has been rendered a thing of the past.
That having been said, few would deny that important strides were made in the 1960s and the civil rights movement. What caused this?
Perhaps the most important radical theory on this topic is Derrick Bell's "interest-convergence"
theory. Interest-convergence holds that Whites only accede to Black civil rights demands when it is in their interest to do so. Brown v. Board
, for example, was not a case of White people just "coming to their senses" finally. Rather, it was a direct response to Cold War pressures -- the U.S. was being killed in its diplomatic efforts to sway the non-aligned states by our well-publicized segregation and discrimination. The State Department was receiving a flurry of screaming memos from our foreign ambassadors to this effect, and that prompted the U.S. Federal Government to intervene on behalf of a civil rights plaintiff for the first time. In her book Cold War Civil Rights
, legal historian Mary Dudziak did the historical legwork and found that Bell's hypothesis was largely accurate, in that Cold War pressures did seem to play a significant role in convincing the American government to reconsider its racist policies.
However, several authors, such as Paul Finkelman
and Rachel D. Godsil
have identified several cases and actions where White actors seemed to protect Black civil rights when no immediate benefit was to be had. To this, Bell would respond that these constitute "contradiction closing cases" -- one's in which the dominant order was not threatened, but White actors could seek to prove that the deck is not stacked, that the legal system and the judiciary could be trusted to be be fair and neutral. Godsil's example, for instance, are the "race nuisance" cases around the turn of the century, where Whites sued arguing that the presence of Blacks nearby (in homes or churches or businesses) constituted a "nuisance" under the law. Blacks often won these cases. Godsil argues that there is no immediate interest Whites possessed in ruling such, and hence an exception to the I-C theory appears. But Bell would presumably respond that by Godsil's own admission, "nuisance" rulings were not necessary to preserve America's segregated environment, so courts could afford to be "neutral" on them secure in the knowledge that there would be no practical effect on the Jim Crow structure they represented.
So that's interest-convergence. But it is hardly the only theory out there. In their book "Black Power", Stokely Carmichael
and Charles Hamilton
argue that Black progress only occurs in situations where Blacks have "closed ranks" so as to express sufficient political power to achieve their needs. Government responds to political pressure, only when Blacks are in a position to provide such pressure does true progress occur. As an example, they cite the establishment of the Tuskegee Institute (where Booker T. Washington spent most of his career). Tuskegee came into being because a local Democratic politician needed the votes of the Black community. He asked a local Black leader what it would take to deliver his community's votes. The man responded by requesting funding for a normal school. The candidate agreed, the votes were delivered, the school was built, and Tuskegee was born. Only because the politician felt he had to be responsive to the political power of Blacks, did Blacks see any material benefit. Whatever gains Blacks see in America's political arena today are directly correlated to the amount of political pressure they can bring to bear as a community. The 1960s saw a huge increase in the political mobilization and unity of the Black community, leading to positive governmental response. When their power as a group is diluted (gerrymandering, inability to elect the representatives of their choice), they lose influence.
Relatedly, James Cone
argues that Black progress has historically occurred through a sort of "good cop/bad cop" mentality between various elements of the Black community. Martin Luther King was seen as a rabble-rousing radical by much of the White community -- until the Black Power movement began to arise in full force. At that point, the implicit argument made by the "mainstream" civil rights forces was "deal with us, or you'll have to deal with them." Civil rights progress only came into being because of the more radical "threat" Black Power posed in the background. Without the "bad cop", the "good cop" of idealistic liberal reform would have remained on the margins.
So, those are a few of the theories floating out there, explaining mechanisms for civil rights progress to occur while still taking account of the persistence of racism. Rather than civil rights being a case of Whites "seeing the light", the discourse is better seen as a struggle
between the entrenched racial order and various responses by the Black community which managed to distress but not dislodge ingrained structural racism. If one believes Bell, racial progress stops at the moment where it ceases to be in White interests; if one believes Carmichael & Hamilton, racial progress stops where Blacks no longer possess the political power to enact reformist agendas; if one believes Cone, racial progress stops where there is no backdrop of serious radical challenge to force Whites to come to the bargaining table with "moderates."