One hundred and fifty years ago today, the Civil War began, the savage struggle over whether America would be a land of freedom or of slavery. Americans suffered more loss of life than in World War I and World War II combined. Slavery was ended, but racial inequity was not. In the South, denial that slavery was the root cause of the secession and war began immediately after the Confederacy’s surrender.
And that denial of reality corrodes our politics to this day.
In a brilliant essay in Time Magazine, “The Way We Weren’t,” David Von Drehle notes that a recent Harris Interactive poll asked Americans what the Civil War was about, and found that a majority of Americans–including a staggering two-thirds of white respondents in the 11 states that formed the Confederacy–answered that the South was mostly motivated by “states’ rights,” rather than the future of slavery.
The argument for states’ rights provided the rationale for ending the Reconstruction after the Civil War, breaking the promise to the freed slaves, and yoking the South back under racial apartheid. And when the civil rights movement finally ended legal segregation, states’ rights became the banner under which the South resisted school desegregation. The modern Republican Party was built on a Southern strategy, using race as a wedge to divide middle- and low-income voters.
Denial is not simply a syndrome of the former Confederate states. Slavery was also widespread in the North, as was segregation. When the slaves and their children came North, they found themselves redlined out of good homes, good schools and good jobs.
To this day, African Americans are last hired and first fired. To this day, African-American children attend racially segregated public schools, often suffering from savage inequality in funding and in skilled teachers. To this day, African Americans must struggle with a system of criminal injustice that makes them more likely than whites to be stopped, more likely to be searched if stopped, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be imprisoned for the same crimes.
The problem of the 20th century, wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, “is the problem of the color line.” And now, as America moves toward being a majority minority country, the problem of the color line remains in the 21st century. Yes, great progress has been made, as the presence of Barack Obama in the White House attests, but race still colors our debates, and skews our priorities.
When Wall Street excess and regulatory lassitude blew up the global economy, conservatives sought to defend what Alan Greenspan admitted was a “flaw” in their world view by laying the blame on blacks. They argued with a straight face that the powerful poverty lobby forced hapless banks to make loans to unqualified urban borrowers, thereby inflating the housing bubble and causing the mess. Never mind that most of the subprime loans were issued and marketed by financial houses that weren’t covered by the Community Reinvestment Act. Never mind that the banks were so rapacious that they invented synthetic–fake–packages of mortgages for speculation.
America is a more unequal country, with more children in poverty and more citizens without health care than any other industrial country. There is little doubt that were Americans of one race rather than a melting pot, had we not been stained by racial slavery and segregation, we would do far more to ensure every child a healthy and fair start in life.
Today, the condition of African Americans is worsening. De facto segregation is expanding. The cuts in public education, public transportation, public health care and jobs training disproportionately hit African Americans. The question isn’t deficits, but priorities. Republicans at the state and national level want to lower taxes on the richest Americans, while cutting services to the most vulnerable.
When Dr. King spoke in Washington in 1963, he spoke of the need for America to honor its promise of equality. We issue this same demand to our Congress and the administration today: A truthful analysis of today’s disparities and inequalities is needed, and a plan for remedy, investment and reconstruction. The problem of the color line, wrote DuBois, is the problem of the 20th century. It will take this type of bold action to ensure that it does not remain the problem in the 21st century.