The Strange Career of Jim Crow

I recently finished this book by C. Vann Woodward from 1966 (second revised edition). It’s a short book, in a courtly old style, and the material it covers was so new to me that reading it was kind of a dreamlike experience. I was struck by the many ways in which Jim Crow laws were anticipated, echoed, or connived at by the North. “At the dawn of the new century,” Woodward observes (meaning, of course, the twentieth),

the wave of Southern racism came in as a swell upon a mounting tide of national sentiment and was very much a part of that sentiment. Had the tide been running the other way, the Southern wave would have broken feebly instead of becoming a wave of the future.

Here’s something I found quite shocking, due to my love of elite liberal media:

It was quite common in the ’eighties and ’nineties to find in the Nation, Harper’s Weekly, the North American Review, or the Atlantic Monthly Northern liberals and former abolitionists mouthing the shibboleths of white supremacy regarding the Negro’s innate inferiority, shiftlessness, and hopeless unfitness for full participation in the white man’s civilization. . . . Just as the Negro gained his emancipation and new rights through a falling out between white men, he now stood to lose his rights through the reconciliation of white men.

For me that last sentence points up one of the major themes of the book: the usefulness of racism comes first, before racist structures are actually cemented into place. (This is also a theme of the great “Undoing Racism” training.) Black people in America were (and are) oppressed by laws and customs not because white people spontaneously came to believe that they were inferior, but because that belief was useful to the white power structure. In fact, a populist politician named Tom Watson put it this way in 1892:

You [blacks and whites] are made to hate each other because on that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both.

Woodward shows that this “race antagonism” was adopted for very specific purposes, and that the South had permission to do so from the country as a whole.

No real relief was in sight from the long cyclical depression of the ’nineties, an acute period of suffering that had only intensified the distress of the much longer agricultural depression. . . . There had to be a scapegoat. And all along the line signals were going up to indicate that the Negro was an approved object of aggression. These “permissions-to-hate” came from . . . the federal courts in numerous opinions, from Northern liberals eager to conciliate the South . . . and from a national temper suddenly expressed by imperialistic adventures and aggressions against colored peoples in distant lands.

It’s interesting to me too that Woodward explicitly names Jim Crow as a system of racist laws put in place by the forces of white supremacy. The phrase “white supremacy,” used to mean the structural forces that keep black people at the bottom of American society, has gone out of the mainstream since Strange Career was published; last fall I noted my surprise when Ta-Nehisi Coates used it in his assessment of Obama. When I use it myself I always explain nervously, “I don’t mean like the KKK, I mean . . .”

Finally, here’s a bracing quote from Abraham Lincoln (1858):

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races . . . and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the black and white races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

It’s important to remember that Spielberg’s is not the only history.

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