Abstract

Excerpted from: Anthony Cook, The Ghosts of 1964: Race, Reagan, and the Neo-conservative Backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, 6 Alabama Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Law Review 81 (2015) (Footnotes) (Full Document)

 

 AnthonyCookAmerican slavery was “officially” buried by our nation's ratification of the 13 14 and 15 amendments to the constitution. But the ghosts of slavery soon inhabited new forms -- political, economic, and cultural -- intent on returning Blacks to a position of abject servitude and subordination. Jim Crow segregation embodied slavery's spirit of White supremacy, allowing it to live on in a different form. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was but another attempt to exorcise from American life the demonic spirit of slavery that had so horrifically deformed American institutions and culture. But by 1980 it was clear, yet again, that notwithstanding the “official” death and burial of old Jim Crow -- a death certified by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights, 1965 Voting Rights, and 1968 Fair Housing Acts -- the past lived on. The ghosts of American slavery and its mutant offspring, Jim Crow, roamed the land of the free and haunted the home of the brave in search of new cultural, political, and economic practices to possess and infest. American slavery was “officially” buried by our nation's ratification of the 13 14 and 15 amendments to the constitution. But the ghosts of slavery soon inhabited new forms -- political, economic, and cultural -- intent on returning Blacks to a position of abject servitude and subordination. Jim Crow segregation embodied slavery's spirit of White supremacy, allowing it to live on in a different form. The civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century was but another attempt to exorcise from American life the demonic spirit of slavery that had so horrifically deformed American institutions and culture. But by 1980 it was clear, yet again, that notwithstanding the “official” death and burial of old Jim Crow -- a death certified by the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights, 1965 Voting Rights, and 1968 Fair Housing Acts -- the past lived on. The ghosts of American slavery and its mutant offspring, Jim Crow, roamed the land of the free and haunted the home of the brave in search of new cultural, political, and economic practices to possess and infest. 

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the forces that would shape a sustained backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement were already in play: party realignment and the re-emergence of the religious right in American politics; the rise of a 'law and order' movement that would morph into a 'war on drugs' movement fueling the mass incarceration of Black and Hispanic men, women, and children; the accelerated development of a 'military industrial complex' that would morph from a war against communism to one against terrorism. Taken together, these converging forces not only undermined the dream of racial equality promised by America's Second Reconstruction but threatened democracy itself, intensifying social inequality and stratification across racial lines, trampling civil rights and liberties, and eventually consolidating political and corporate power on a scale not seen in recent American history. 

As Stuart Hall has pointed out, “discourse is about the production of knowledge through language. But it is itself produced by a practice: 'discursive practice’ -- the practice of producing meaning. Since all social practices entail meaning, all practices have a discursive aspect. So discourse enters into and influences all social practices.” Drawing on Foucault, Hall describes the relationship between discourse, knowledge, and power in the following way: 

Not only is discourse always implicated in power; discourse is one of the 'systems' through which power circulates. The knowledge which a discourse produces constitutes a kind of power, exercised over those who are 'known’. When that knowledge is exercised in practice, those who are 'known’ in a particular way will be. . .subjected to it. This is always a power-relation. Those who produce the discourse also have the power to make it true -- i.e. to enforce its validity, its scientific status. 
The backlash to the civil rights movement was effective precisely because it so capably used political and popular discourses to create knowledge as power, recasting the agenda of neo-conservative elites as a universal cause and, in the process, entrenching race and class stratification. In order to institutionalize the backlash, neo-conservative elites had to convince non-elites that their interests were aligned. I refer to this as the discursive practice of Interest Alignment. 

Second, it was necessary that neo-conservative elites achieve their objective without engendering empathy for those who were the object of the backlash, inadvertently mobilizing support for the latter and contempt for themselves. I will refer to this as the discursive practice of “Othering.” 

Finally, neo-conservative elites had to adjust the collective memory of recent events. They had to construct a revisionist narrative of the civil rights social movement and its achievements, folding it back into a dominant narrative and discourse that supported those in power and their agenda. I will refer to this as the discursive practice of Revisionist-Narrative. 

Taken together, these discursive practices -- Interest Alignment, Othering, and Revisionist-Narrative -- explain why some backlashes become institutionalized and sustain themselves over long periods of time. 

I explore in this essay how neo-conservative elites used these discursive practices to nurture and institutionalize the backlash to the civil rights movement. I then discuss how this backlash produced tangible victories for neo-conservative elites who benefitted from bottom-up redistribution of income, wealth, and power to the detriment of not just Blacks and other minorities, but segments of the White population as well -- the poor and working/middle class. 
My hope is that by understanding the discursive practices supporting backlash, progressive movements will better equip themselves to counter similar strategies and tactics in the future.

[. . .] 

Racism hurts America, not just Black America. The discursive use of racial symbols and narratives are most often, as was the case with the Southern Strategy and Reagan's neo-conservative movement, smokescreens for a war on the middle-class, working-class, and underclass poor of America. And to the victor, the wealthy beneficiaries of supply-side economics, go the spoils of war: redistribution from the bottom and middle classes via deunionization of workers, deregulation of financial markets, defunding of equal opportunity and social welfare programs, increased militarization, and privatization of the common good. 

The ghosts of 1964 continue to haunt American politics and will not be exorcised until King's call for a true revolution in American values is answered and We the People rise to confront and subdue the triple evils of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism with the egalitarian spirit that manifests itself most unwaiveringly at critical junctures in American history -- the Declaration of Independence, the 19th Century Reconstruction, the 20th Century Second Reconstruction, and the many movements for substantive justice and equality.