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""Now We Are Engaged in a Great Civil War, Testing Whether That Nation, Or Any Nation So Conceived and So Dedicated, Can Long Endure","

by Howard Winant November/December 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

If Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown are correct that the elimination of Jim Crow did not really occur, then what did happen in the Civil Rights and post-Civil Rights era?

By the Color of Our Skin sounds quite familiar, perhaps because there isn’t anything really new here. Many academics and activists have made essentially the same points: critical race theorists such as Kim Crenshaw and Gary Peller, sociologists and historians such as Stephen Steinberg, Joe Feagin, Frances Piven and Richard Cloward, George Lipsitz, Robin Kelley, Manning Marable and others too numerous to mention have all travelled this road before. Indeed Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown’s lament about the failure of integration may not be dolorous enough, for as many have pointed out, white racial intransigence is a virtual death-sentence for democracy in the US.

So let us stipulate to the fact that, with certain real exceptions (for example voting rights), segregation and discrimination, prejudice and privilege, and white supremacy in general, lived on after the high-water mark of the movement flood had been reached. Employment discrimination, educational discrimination, environmental discrimination, discriminatory immigration, taxation, health, welfare and transportation policies (to name but the main dimensions of this issue) all continue in the present, at times amelioriated as a consequence of civil rights reform, but by no means uprooted or fundamentally altered from their pre-civil rights era configurations. The most egregious case of discrimination, that of residential segregation, was barely affected by civil rights reforms.

What did happen? A tremendous incorporation of political opposition, that’s what. An adjustment of the previously dangerous imbalance between those with real, exercisable citizenship rights (whites) and those without such rights (particularly blacks, but also other “others”: Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans). This adjustment could not have been as successful as it was — speaking from the standpoint of the “power structure,” the “establishment” — if it had been merely symbolic. It required real concessions, the redistribution of political and economic resources, to win acceptance, to readjust “racial hegemony,” to defuse the radical potential of the black movement and its allies. Notably too, the concessions made to the movement by means of the civil rights reforms were crucial maneuvers in the international political sphere, not just the domestic one. They were vital in the “twilight struggle” of the Cold War.

So there we have the real dilemma: not so much integration v. segregation, though of course I do not mean to disparage the importance of those issues. The more central questions that the black movement and its allies posed involved the readjustment of the balance of power in the US. Put in starker terms, the movement called into question the national/state commitment to racial democracy vs. racial dictatorship; it tested whether the “unstable equilibrium” of racial hegemony that had lasted for 350 years or so could be maintained. Perhaps most centrally, the movement tested the North American people. It questioned their commitments to democracy, equality and social justice; they were asked to weigh these against the comforts and privileges the majority of them derived from the racism on which the country had been founded. Would they accept substantial, let us call it social-democratic, redistribution of income and wealth? Would they agree to the wage cuts, the increased job competition, the increased taxation and the massive cultural reorientation needed, at least in the short run, to achieve significant anti-racist reform?

Most black people, significant numbers of other racially-defined minorities, and an important but relatively small number of white people too were willing to accept such radical changes, and were even poised to endure the upheavals that such a political program would have demanded. But most white people, significant numbers of other racially-defined minorities, and an important but relatively small number of black people were unwilling to take the risks or make the sacrifices required. Hence the new “unstable equilibrium,” or racial stalemate, of the post-civil rights era. Hence the continuation of Duboisian “racial dualism,” though obviously not on the same terms as in the heyday of Jim Crow. This “dualism” cuts through the sensibilities of us all now, through the minds and hearts of North Americans of every color. Because the situation remains unstable, it can only result in further social struggle. A luta continua!

Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at Temple University and author of The World Is a Ghetto: Race and Democracy Since World War II (Basic Books). hwinant@nimbus.temple.edu
 
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