- John Holbo: Conor Friedersdorf and Sam Ervin
- Jelani Cobb: The Failure of Desegregation
- with bonus E.J. Graff
Let’s cut all that loose and try again.... Conor Friedersdorf’s argument that gay marriage opponents shouldn’t be likened to racist bigots goes something like this.
P1: Racism is pretty simple: “A belief in the superiority of one race and the inferiority of another.”
P2: Opposition to same-sex marriage is complex: “One thing I’ve noticed in this debate is how unfamiliar proponents of stigma are with thoughtful orthodox Christians — that is to say, they haven’t interacted with them personally, critiqued the best version of their arguments, or even been exposed to the most sophisticated version of their reasoning, which I find to be obviously earnest, if ultimately unpersuasive.”
C: Comparing same-sex marriage opponents to racist bigots falsifies by over-simplification
Friedersdorf is braced for resistance to P2. But P2 is ok and the problem is P1. I hope it’s obvious to you, when it’s put so simply. Racism is not… simple. (How could it be?)
Let me interrupt here by quoting from an email from E.J. Graff:
There are no good arguments against marriage equality under our current philosophy of marriage.
There were, under a previous one. But because of all the changes that happened in the West's marriage philosophy and laws between 1851 and 1974, same-sex couples now belong.
- It was NOT obvious that same-sex couples belonged in marriage in 1851, when:
- it was still a highly gendered institution,
- with legal responsibilities allocated by sex.
- It was not obvious in 1400, when:
- marriage was the way families divvied up land or labor,
- with the spouses' jobs interdependent and different (spinning over here, farming over there).
It's obvious now because an entire movement of people worked to make it obvious--NOT because Olsen & Boies made their argument, but because we delivered an argument and a country we had changed TO them.... People... who were against us just 20 or ten years ago: I remember what you wrote. I don't hold it against you. We had to make the argument and then the rest of you could follow.
And we will now let Holbo resume:
At this point you could try to say that racism is simple insofar as racist psychology/sociology cannot be tangled up in anything even potentially good, whereas anti same-sex marriage folks are trying to hold onto things that are, at least potentially, really good: community and identity and tradition, so forth. But obviously this emendation is a total loser. Racism is tangled up with norms about community and identity and tradition and so forth. Insofar as those are potentially good, racism is psychologically tangled up with things that are potentially good. Community is good. Having an identity you value is good. The antebellum South was graceful. Grace is good. (I’m not opposed to grace, per se. Are you?)
Friedersdorf would agree, I’m sure, so why did he make the bad argument? He was sliding from morals to psychology and back again. This is easy to do.
Ultimately, the moral arguments against racism are pretty simple; and, as a society, we have instituted a categorical moral ban (honored so often in the breach, but nominally a ban.) We aren’t inclined to get morally grey about this. ‘Moderately racist’ sounds, to our ears, more like ‘moderately murderous’ than ‘moderately violent’. Moderation in one’s racism is not an exculpatory factor.
So far I take myself to be describing, not recommending. But (because I know you will want to know): I think it’s on balance a good thing that our racism ban is so absolute – even though an obvious consequence of having set the bar high is widespread moral hypocrisy and confusion. Hence the problem with Friedersdorf argument, among other things.
The severity of our social ‘racism bad!’ ban does encourage (though it does not mandate!) psychological simplification. Obviously if you just ask people, ‘is racism psychologically/sociologically simple?’, they are going to say ‘no’, if they are sensible. But, insofar as we let our morals do our psychologizing for us, we have a certain tendency to simplify what we are dealing with.
Friedersdorf is just trying to say that not all same-sex marriage opponents are Bull Connor, ready to release the dogs to tear apart queers. That’s terribly unfair to the more civilized sort of same-sex marriage opponent. But, for that matter, it’s terribly unfair to most racists – today and in the past – to compare them to Bull Connor. All racists are not as bad as the very worst of racists, at their very worst.
If today’s most thoughtful same-sex marriage opponents are to be compared to racists, they should be compared, not to Bull Connor, but to the most thoughtful and moderate racists. Obviously it was very painful to moderate racists to see Bull Connor on TV. They knew they would be, personally, tarred with all that. When they themselves did not approve of it in the least.
Of course, given our absolute moral ban on racism, pointing this out is barely better than a bad joke – or at least a sneaky move on my part. Since we don’t now consider moderate racism more justifiable – hence acceptable – than the Full Bull Connor, there is no way to defend opposition to same-sex marriage, moderately, by saying it is only like moderate segregationism.
Same-sex marriage opponents are worried they will be excluded from polite society. Their opinions will fall outside the range of opinions that it is considered acceptable to hold. Establishing their moderate segregationism analog bona fides would be no way to insure against that. Rather, it would immediately guarantee their worst fears have come true.
Nevertheless, I do think that, logically (though this is a total political loser) same-sex marriage opponents really ought to argue, not that they are not like racists, but that, just as regarding all racists as like Bull Connor is psychologically oversimple, regarding all same-sex marriage opponents as queer-bashers is psychologically oversimple. And, perhaps, when we come to appreciate this truth about the complexity of the soul, categorical moral bans will soften, in turn. We will learn to tolerate moderate same-sex marriage opponents and moderate racists alike, as the subtle complexities of their souls may merit.
Like I said: tough sell.
But: is same-sex marriage opposition like moderate racism? Soft segregationism, say? Let’s simplify that. What is moderate racism?
I’ve been doing some reading on the so-called ‘soft Southern strategy’ of the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s. I’ve been reading moderate defenses of segregation, that is. Last year, you may recall, I posted reflections on a bunch of ‘moderate’ defenses of slavery. I’m proud of that post, and I’ve been meaning to follow up. It’s an important moral category: moderation, concerning an issue that seems to us, in retrospect, to admit no moderation. I’m now reading a good biography: Senator Sam Ervin, Last of The Founding Fathers [amazon], by Karl E. Campbell.
Sam Ervin was the face of the Watergate hearings. Nixon called him “that old incredible bastard,” which is great adjective order. Senator Sam told folksy jokes and stories. He set back the cause of civil rights for African-Americans, every chance he got. He got a lot of chances. He denied having a racist or bigoted bone in his body. I’m pretty sure he was sincere about that, although I don’t think he was right; not by a country mile:
Throughout his life the senator expressed deep anguish whenever anyone charged him with racism. During congressional hearings on immigration in 1965, Ervin suggested that Ethiopians had no right to be treated as favorably as immigrants from northern Europe. “I don’t know of a single contribution that the Abyssinians [Ethiopians] have made,” Ervin said. “Why should we put them on an equality with those countries that wrote our Constitution and gave us our common laws?” When a reporter concluded that Ervin opposed immigration reform because he held racist opinions about Africans, the senator called the newspaper and demanded an apology. George B. Autry, who served on Ervin’s staff, recalled: “Those charges really hurt the Senator. He couldn’t understand how people could say such a thing about him.” Ervin consistently disavowed any racist motivations in speeches he delivered against civil rights on the Senate floor. “My opposition does not arise out of any matter of race,” he insisted. “All of my life I have been a friend to the Negro race. As a citizen, a lawyer and a judge, I have done everything within my power to see to it that all citizens enjoy equality before the law.”
But when Ervin had the opportunity to publicly disclaim the racist theory of white biological supremacy, he demurred. In 1963 an interviewer asked Ervin point blank: “Do you agree with [Mississippi governor Ross Barnett] that the Negro race is inferior to the white race?” Ervin answered with a story: “There was a man in my county one time who was talking about building fences. He said the best fence posts were made out of a locust tree. He said they would last two lifetimes. He said he had tried it. I have only lived one part of a lifetime, and I don’t think you can measure the relative abilities of races in a generation.” In contrast to the hesitancy he revealed in his statements on white supremacy, Ervin proudly enunciated his views on Jim Crow when he told Look magazine in 1956:
“I believe in racial segregation as it exists in the South today.” Since his childhood, he had lived in, and approved of, a racially divided world. Ervin did not endorse the extreme segregationist positions held by some of his southern senatorial colleagues. He stated publicly that he thought it was wrong to deny African Americans access to any professional or business opportunity open to whites. But Ervin did believe that in the area of social relations the races should remain separated. He insisted that segregation was not the product of racial prejudice, but the result of “a basic natural law, which decrees that like shall seek like. Whenever and wherever people are free to choose their own associates, they choose as their associates members of their own race.”
Ervin argued that “the relations between the white and Negro races in North Carolina [were] as harmonious as relations between any two races anywhere on the face of the earth.” The senator denied that black Tar Heels faced economic discrimination, citing as proof that “they operate banks, insurance companies, public transportation systems and other substantial business enterprises.” Ervin also claimed that most African Americans in his state supported the Jim Crow system. “The majority of Negroes, like the majority of whites, prefer to go to their own churches, their own social organizations and their own fraternal organizations,” he explained. “I believe that they prefer to send their children to their own schools.” If North Carolina enjoyed such harmonious race relations, why then was there such an active civil rights movement within Ervin’s home state? The senator’s answer echoed the comfortable rationalizations popular among white southerners. He suggested that “the present attack on racial segregation is spearheaded mainly by three groups: well meaning outsiders, whose unfamiliarity with the South causes them to ‘darken counsel by works without knowledge’; political opportunists who hanker after votes; and Negro leaders who demand that all governmental powers be diverted from their proper functions to force the involuntary mixing of the races.”
It seems so strange today that Ervin, as the ‘moderate’ face of segregation, could be the figure Look magazine would look to, to say something sensible. We today regard out-and-out racism as more sensible, if it comes to that. If you are going to insist that people be treated worse, you should have the decency to regard them as worse people, hence as deserving of worse treatment! Otherwise you are saying people who don’t deserve worse, deserve worse. Which makes no sense. (I think I get no argument from you.)
Anyway, I’m planning a follow-up post to this one. What do we think of the likes of Sam Ervin? I’ll round out this post by offering a few reflections.
But first, a few links. The author, Campbell, published an article-length argument about Ervin here, several years before the biography came out. (You need JSTOR, but it is possible to get a free JSTOR account that gives you access to a few articles at a time. Inconvenient, yes.) Here is a review of the biography. And I just noticed – I haven’t yet watched myself – a c-span interview with the author. I probably won’t have my follow-up post up for a week, at least. It might be nice if, in the meantime, anyone who wished to weigh in on my eventual discussion, had also read the biography – or at least something substantive on the subject. I haven’t read any of Sam Ervin’s own writings [amazon]. But you can get Preserving the Constitution! for a penny! Good deal, I expect.
We underestimate the complexity of the South’s response to the Second Reconstruction, and overlook the intricacies of southern racist thought, when we portray all opponents of civil rights as ignorant and irrational demagogues. To be sure, many were. But some of the white defenders of the segregated South developed shrewd and coherent political philosophies to maintain segregation. Sam Ervin’s soft southern strategy represented one of the most insidious and effective examples of the white South’s response to the African American struggle for freedom.
I can’t go all the way to ‘coherent’. But I’ll buy the rest. The question is really how such a manifestly incoherent, yet towering structure of legalism, paternalism, pretext, folk humor, and confabulation can hold together, let alone conceal – from itself! – that racism and bigotry are part of the mix. They called him Claghorn’s Hammurabi, and he was strange guy. (Touching back on Friedersdorf’s argument, for a moment: if you think ‘sophisticated and earnest’ are distinguishing features of anti same-sex marriage arguments, over and against racist arguments, you need to read Sam Ervin’s sophisticated, earnest constitutional arguments against civil rights.)
Bigotry is an inherently negative attitude. But racism is, essentially, just a hierarchical notion. It really has nothing inherent to do with hate. Bigotry says someone is bad. Racism says ‘I am better’. Which implies someone is worse. But it doesn’t necessarily dwell on it, darkly, let alone violently. Racism can walk on the sunny side of the street, in its mind.
Ervin does not seem to be bubbling over with race hate, in an emotional sense. This is why he felt that charges of racism, against him, were unjust. A racist is a bigot is consumed with hate. Ervin looked in his heart, saw no bubbling hate, per se, for the black man. He exonerated himself on that charge, and felt anger at his unjust accusers for calling him racist.
What he felt was love of hierarchy and order and preservation of social status.
He had a two-week (!) debate, in hearings with Robert Kennedy, in 1963. ‘The Bobby and Sam Show’, they called it. Kennedy cited figures and figures and figures, as evidence that actually things were not so great for the black man, in the South. Senator Sam joked: figures don’t lie, but liars sure do figure! Kennedy, wearily: “If we cannot recognize the fact that there is a problem, Senator, we are not going to get very far.”
Ervin’s temper, which had been rising, now boiled over. Standing to defend his homeland he retorted: “Mr. Attorney General, I will maintain at any time, and in any place, under any conditions, that North Carolina is more like heaven than any other place on earth.
Of course, he then admits there are problems. There are problems everywhere! And probably people know best how to handle their own problems, without outsiders interfering.
But really the fixed point is this: if there are angels on earth, probably they have tar on their heels.
Howard Lee, the first African American to be elected mayor in North Carolina in the twentieth century, explained: “Blacks tended to be rejected in the South as a race, as a whole, but accepted individually, and I always found that if that kind of system could continue then the power brokers could decide who would have certain privileges and who would not. . . . And it would be those privileges that would still give them a certain amount of power.”
Lee’s description of the southern paternalistic system helps explain Ervin’s absolute opposition to all civil rights legislation. The mayor believed that “Senator Sam’s position [against civil rights] was based to a great extent on a very unique position that many power brokers took within North Carolina and throughout the South. And that position is that if laws are enacted which give freedom to the whole then there is no longer the opportunity to give and take privileges. . . . With the enactment of civil rights laws, this whole process, this whole system crumbled.”
Pulling it all together: animosity towards blacks – wishing them ill, for ill’s sake – is not the center of the picture. What is important is that good things for blacks should flow down from a morally and socially hierarchical peak, inhabited by the likes of Ervin. There is also an intense just world hypothesis-grade refusal to admit anything really bad could be happening, and have happened.
Civil rights need to be resisted, not because good things for blacks are bad, but because good things cannot come to blacks in a way that suggests that bad things came to them before.
That is, Ervin does not want bad things for blacks but wants it to be the case that things that are (we see so clearly today) bad for blacks, are good for blacks. This is a very normal type of racism. But it doesn’t fit with our paradigm racist case: hate.
This is common sense, but we’re on the internet, so let me add the thing I shouldn’t need to: I’m not saying that I know, for a certain metaphysical truth, that Sam Ervin’s heart was as pure as the driven snow, when it came to being free from the least little bit of racial animus. I assume the contrary, since I am not insane. Nevertheless, if you took his primary motive, in resisting civil rights, to be race hatred – i.e. bigotry – I think you would be mistaken. His racism wasn’t a felt emotion of hate but a blinkered vision of the social good. A will to ‘I am better’, not a will to ‘you are worse’.
You will object that these are two sides of the same coin. Yes, and that means you can always be looking at one side – or mostly be looking at one side – rather than the other.
And speaking of saying things that should be obvious: the overall moral of this Ervin story isn’t about same-sex marriage, obviously. The point is: moderate racism is an important psychological/sociological category, to which we are semi-blinded by our (rightful!) exclusion of moderate racism as defensible moral position. The importance of thinking about moderate racism is mostly this: there are more Sam Ervins around today than Bull Connors. As society becomes less tolerant of racism, racism involves more double-thinking. No one exceeded Ervin at that! But when we think about racism we think: Bull Connor and dogs and firehoses.
Probably you will say: you didn’t need to argue it at such length! Still, I don’t think we have a standard model of the Sam Ervin-type mind; only of the Bull Connor-type mind. We have a standard model only of the non-standard model, that is.
But, having made an argument about same-sex marriage the occasion for bouncing off into reflections on Claghorn’s Hammurabi, I might as well tie it back, tie it off. Friedersdorf – and many others – argue that it is wrong to compare same-sex marriage opposition to racism, because same-sex marriage opposition can be fueled by a kind of (perhaps hopeless, nostalgic) positive, hierarchical vision of the good, where social order is concerned. My point, coming off the Ervin case, would be this: this doesn’t prove same-sex marriage opposition is unlike racism.
...filed a lawsuit challenging the segregated education system in her home state of Delaware. Bulah lived near a spacious, modern, whites-only high school, but her daughter, Shirley, was forced to attend a decrepit, single-room school. The state provided transportation only for white students, so Bulah had to drive her daughter to and from school each day, even though the bus route ran right past her home. Hundreds of other black parents in the area faced the same situation, yet Bulah’s decision to mount a legal challenge was met with scorn. Her neighbors disagreed with her, while local black teachers voiced their own disapproval. Bulah’s pastor doubted the wisdom of her actions. “I was for segregation,” he later remarked.
Bulah won her case, and, for the first time, a court ordered a whites-only public school to accept black students. After the state appealed the decision, the lawsuit, Bulah v. Gebhart, became part of a cluster of cases heard by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education. Sarah Bulah, who had acted against the wishes of many in her community, was partly responsible for helping to dismantle the infrastructure of legal segregation in the United States.
But, as we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the Brown decision, next month, the landmark case seems, in hindsight, like a qualified victory. Racially homogenous schools remain a fact of American life. There may be no contemporary analogue to the violent resistance in the nineteen-seventies against school busing programs, but in recent years even voluntary-desegregation plans have been met with legal challenges. There may be no better example of the ongoing scandal of school segregation than the New York City public-school system, which a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at U.C.L.A. found to be one of the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino students in New York have become more likely to attend schools with minimal white enrollment, and a majority of them go to schools defined by concentrated poverty. Three-quarters of the city’s charter schools, which were a key component of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts at education reform, have fewer than one per cent white enrollment. At Stuyvesant, the most exclusive of the city’s specialized public high schools, where admission is determined by a competitive exam, only seven black students and twenty-one Latino students were offered places in next year’s freshman class. New York is simultaneously the most diverse city in the United States and the most glaring indicator of integration’s failures.
When I graduated from Jamaica High School, in Queens, in 1987, the school was recognized for both its high academic performance and its diverse student body, which mirrored the polyglot neighborhood that surrounded it. (In 1985, it was honored by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the nation’s “outstanding” public secondary schools.) Among my four closest African-American friends from high school—only one of whom had college-educated parents—two went on to get Ph.D.s, and the other two have M.B.A.s. By 2009, however, the graduation rate had slumped below fifty per cent, and the school was slated for closure by the city, owing to its poor academic achievement and high levels of violence. It had already long ceased having the mélange of ethnicities that I remembered. But the reversion toward segregation was not the cause of the school’s academic decline: both were symptoms of the concentration of poverty that has come to define public schools across most of New York City.
The meaning of the ongoing resegregation of our public schools becomes clearer if we look back at the campaign to integrate them—which was concerned less with race than with resources. We like to think of the men and women whose struggle led to Brown v. Board of Education as democratic idealists, but their motivations were more complex: if the efforts to upend Jim Crow reflected idealism, it was a cynical idealism. The damning images of Southern resistance to integration, and Northern riots against busing, obscure the fact that the decision to fight segregation was as fraught for African-Americans as the prospect of desegregation was for the whites who most violently opposed it. In the decades prior to Brown, the civil-rights establishment had fought a fierce and futile battle for the equal distribution of resources between black and white schools. It was only after attempting to force school districts to uphold the latter part of “separate but equal” proved to be a failure that the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund changed its tactics, and attacked separation itself. (It was for this reason, incidentally, that the effort to dismantle educational apartheid in the South came to involve Linda Brown, of Topeka, Kansas—a city where there was a parity of resources between black and white schools.) The tactical shift was not universally welcomed by African-Americans: critics like Zora Neale Hurston howled at the implication that black learning could be insured only by proximity to white children. Elijah Muhammad warned, ominously, that “only a fool allows his enemies to educate his children.” But decades of fruitless lawsuits seeking equal resources for black and white students had taught the N.A.A.C.P.’s lawyers that the only way to secure a fair distribution of resources was to literally sit the black children in the same classrooms as the white ones.
The architects of Jim Crow were fixated by notions of white racial purity, but black people subjected to that dictatorship of pigment were concerned with a different question: In a hostile society, is it better to be isolated from those who view you with contempt or in close proximity to them? In retrospect, it is easy to see segregation as a moral evil unanimously despised by black people, but even its fiercest critics betrayed ambivalence about what its end would mean. In the thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois inspired rancorous debates within the N.A.A.C.P. by arguing, in his writing, that there were important economic benefits—the built-in market for black businesses, for instance—that came with segregation. James Nabrit, Jr., an attorney who handled a school-desgegration suit in Washington, D.C., that became one of the cases grouped with Brown, went on to become president of Howard University, a job that entailed the seemingly paradoxical task of preserving and furthering an all-black educational institution. Three of the other attorneys who worked on Brown, including Thurgood Marshall, had, in fact, met as students at Howard’s law school, and they began their desegregation work under the tutelage of Charles Hamilton Houston, the school’s dean. Black teachers in South Carolina, where another of the desegregation suits had been filed, worried, with some cause, that integration would end a state of affairs in which black children, though deprived of equal resources, at least benefitted from teachers who did not calibrate their expectations according to the color of their students’ skin.
The Supreme Court decision on Brown, in 1954, marked a moral high point in American history, but the practice that it dispatched to the graveyard had already begun to mutate into something less tangible and far more durable. What would, in the end, preserve the principle of “separate inequality” was not protests like the one staged by Orval Faubus, the governor of Arkansas, who deployed the National Guard to Little Rock’s Central High School, in 1957, in order to keep black students out. Instead, it was policies like the Interstate Highway Act, whose passage one year earlier helped spawn American suburbia. In the wake of Brown, private schools, whose implicit mission was to educate white children, cropped up throughout the South. The persistent legacies of redlining, housing discrimination, and wage disparity conspired to produce segregation without Jim Crow—maintaining all the familiar elements of the past in an updated operating system.
To the extent that the word “desegregation” remains in our vocabulary, it describes an antique principle, not a current priority. Today, we are more likely to talk of diversity—but diversification and desegregation are not the same undertaking. To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.
And so, sixty years after Brown, it is clear that the notion of segregation as a discrete phenomenon, an evil that could be flipped, like a switch, from on to off, by judicial edict, was deeply naïve. The intervening decades have shown, in large measure, the limits of what political efforts directed at desegregation alone could achieve, and the crumbling of both elements of “separate but equal” has left us at an ambivalent juncture. To the extent that desegregation becomes, once again, a pressing concern—and even that may be too grand a hope—it will have to involve the tax code, the minimum wage, and other efforts to redress income inequality. For the tragedy of this moment is not that black students still go to overwhelmingly black schools, long after segregation was banished by law, but that they do so for so many of the same reasons as in the days before Brown.