Quantcast

Affirmative Retraction | The Nation

  •  

Affirmative Retraction

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

A century ago, as America made clear its retreat from the egalitarian gains of Reconstruction, two powerful voices set out differing agendas for how black Americans should respond to the rise of Jim Crow. For Booker T. Washington, the best that blacks could hope for was to accommodate themselves to the tide of white reaction and, through economic and social self-help, perhaps could make themselves deserving of full political and legal rights. In contrast to Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that such accommodation only legitimized and bolstered white reaction, and he counseled that blacks should retreat not an inch in claiming their full rights as citizens.

About the Author

Philip A. Klinkner
Philip A. Klinkner teaches government at Hamilton College. His most recent book, The Unsteady March: The Rise and...

Also by the Author

Reading Robert Caro to learn about Lyndon Johnson is like going to an
elaborate buffet in order to get the four basic food groups; they both
give you what you need along with much, much more. In fact, we're only
at the appetizers, since Caro's third and latest volume, Master of
the Senate
, comes in at over1,000 pages and still doesn't take the
story up through the 1960 election! Nonetheless, both are experiences to
be savored. Caro is a gifted and passionate writer, and his
all-encompassing approach to understanding LBJ provides readers with a
panoramic history of twentieth-century American politics as well as a
compelling discourse on the nature and uses of political power.

Moreover, in the midst of the plagiarism contretemps over Stephen
Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is refreshing to read a popular
history that is original and well written. There is clearly no "Caro
Inc." with an army of researchers cutting and pasting books together as
fast as the printing presses can take them. Aided only by his wife, Ina,
Caro's project is now in its third decade. This slow pace results from a
methodical and exhaustive research process. One might well disagree with
Caro's analysis and interpretations, but no one can accuse him of
overlooking an important piece of evidence.

In reality, Master of the Senate is not one book but several.
Caro sets the stage with a history of the United States Senate. The
Senate is virtually unique among legislative bodies in any modern
democracy. With its six-year terms, equal representation for each state
regardless of population and its tradition of unlimited debate, the
Senate is an institution designed for inaction. Individual senators have
little or no incentive to yoke themselves together to advance the
national interest. By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1949, the
body was increasingly seen as too inefficient to meet the demands of
modern government. Since the turn of the century, the President had
increasingly usurped its power in foreign policy, and many observers
predicted that the Senate would eventually have to go the way of most
legislative upper chambers and become, in effect, an American House of
Lords.

That the Senate did not wither away and the reasons for this fact form
the basis for another of Caro's books within a book, Lyndon Johnson's
ascent to "Master of the Senate." Possessed of ambition that can only be
described as obsessive, Johnson campaigned to increase his own power and
influence with a relentlessness and ruthlessness that would have made
Machiavelli blush.

Before Johnson could amass power in the Senate, however, he first had to
shore up his political base in Texas. Having only narrowly "won" (stolen
is the more appropriate word, as Caro vividly and convincingly
demonstrated in his previous volume) election to the Senate in 1948,
Johnson now had to prove his fealty to the Lone Star State's reactionary
and powerful oil and gas titans. To do so, Johnson organized a
behind-the-scenes campaign to block President Truman's reappointment of
Leland Olds as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. A staunch New
Dealer and a committed public servant, Olds had used his position at the
FPC to make sure that electric and natural gas companies did not gouge
their customers. As a result, he was anathema to the Texas natural gas
companies, who saw even the smallest and most reasonable limitation of
their already vast profits as socialist tyranny.

In earlier days, Johnson had fought the same fight as Olds, working as a
freshman Congressman to provide cheap electricity to rural farmers.
Doing so had secured Johnson a place in the hearts of his poor Texas
Hill Country constituents, but that counted for little against the
political power of the state's oil and gas industry. Ambition now
required Johnson to destroy Leland Olds. Unable to attack him on the
substance of his work at the FPC, Johnson instead distorted Olds's
writings as a journalist in the 1920s to portray him as a Communist.
Using a phrase that Joe McCarthy would have appreciated, Johnson
denounced Olds on the floor of the Senate, asking, "Shall we have a
commissioner or a commissar?" The choice of the Senate was clear; the
Olds reappointment failed by a vote of 53 to 15.

The Olds fight secured Johnson's political base and brought him into the
warm embrace of the Texas establishment. After his victory over Olds,
Johnson flew back to Texas on the private plane of Brown & Root, the
giant Texas construction company. "When the Brown & Root plane
delivered him to Texas, it delivered him first to Houston, where a Brown
& Root limousine met him and took him to the Brown & Root suite
in the Lamar Hotel. Waiting for him there, in Suite 8-F, were men who
really mattered in Texas: Herman and George Brown, of course, and oilman
Jim Abercrombie and insurance magnate Gus Wortham. And during the two
months he spent in Texas thereafter, the Senator spent time at Brown
& Root's hunting camp at Falfurrias, and in oilman Sid Richardson's
suite in the Fort Worth Club."

Caro shows how, having won over the men who really mattered in Texas,
Johnson set out to win over the men who really mattered in the Senate,
the "Old Bulls." As a result of the Solid South and the seniority rule,
nearly all of these men were the Southern barons who controlled the
powerful Senate committees. In many ways, currying favor with the Texas
establishment had been relatively easy; all it had required was
destroying the naïve and principled Leland Olds. But the Old Bulls,
men like Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia, Walter George of Georgia and
Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, were a much tougher crowd, not easily
deceived and viciously protective of their power and prerogatives.
Traditionally, one did not attain power by winning over such men;
rather, power came by becoming one of them. But this required the time
and patience necessary to accumulate enough seniority to land a choice
committee assignment and then more time and patience to ascend to the
chairmanship.

But, as Caro points out, Johnson had a very short supply of time and
patience. Indeed, he had risked everything to run for the Senate in 1948
in order to avoid the seniority trap of the House. Now he found himself
in the same bind. Even before he was sworn in, Johnson tried to persuade
the venerable Carl Hayden, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which
was in charge of office space, to give him an extra room. When Johnson
pressed his case too zealously, the usually courteous Hayden shut him
down, saying, "The trouble with you, Senator, is that you don't have the
seniority of a jackrabbit."

If Johnson didn't have the seniority to become one of the Old Bulls, he
would surely do everything he could to gain their favor. The usual
method was obsequiousness, telling these men how powerful and important
they were, and how much he had learned from them. According to Caro,
Johnson's behavior "proved the adage that no excess was possible."

One device, also favored by a more recent Texas politician, was to
bestow nicknames. Edwin "Big Ed" Johnson of Colorado was dubbed "Mr.
Wisdom," while Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts became "Old Oil on
Troubled Waters." Johnson resented having to use such tactics, telling
aide John Connally after fawning over a senior senator, "Christ, I've
been kissing asses all my life"; but ass-kissing worked. As Caro writes,
"In December, Hayden had refused to give Johnson that extra room in the
basement that he had asked for; in February Hayden found that an extra
room was, indeed, available."

While Hayden had the power to provide extra office space, real power in
the Senate rested with the acknowledged leader of the Old Bulls, Richard
Russell of Georgia. Just as Johnson in his earlier career had gained
power by making himself a protégé of House Speaker Sam
Rayburn and President Franklin Roosevelt, he now set out to cultivate
Russell. Though different in temperament and politics, all three men
shared a common element that Johnson used to ingratiate himself: As Caro
points out, all three men were lonely. Both Rayburn and Russell were
childless bachelors, while Roosevelt was largely estranged from his
children and wife. This provided the perfect opportunity for Johnson to
be the dutiful son and companion.

Mere companionship and filial piety, however, were not enough to win
over Russell. According to Caro, "It wasn't a son that Richard Russell
wanted, it was a soldier--a soldier for the Cause." And that cause was
white supremacy. In describing Russell's views on this issue, Caro shows
that while they were almost always cast as a reasoned, nonracist defense
of states' rights, racism was at their core, and such moderation was
merely tactical. "His charm," writes Caro, "was more effective than
chains in keeping blacks shackled to their terrible past." Caro's
description of Russell is not just of historical interest. With calls
for states' rights gaining renewed popularity and legitimacy, it is
important to remember that while not every states' rights advocate is a
closet racist, nearly every advocate of racial inequality has used
states' rights to cloak his real aims and beliefs.

Johnson was willing to take up arms for Russell's cause. In his maiden
speech in the Senate, Johnson denounced President Truman's call for
civil rights legislation in the same reasoned tones used by Russell.
When Johnson finished, Russell was the first to shake his hand, telling
him that his speech was "one of the ablest I have ever heard on the
subject."

Having gained Russell's and the Old Bulls' trust, Johnson now began to
build his own power. In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, he
convinced Russell to allow him to chair a special committee on
preparedness. Caro's description of Johnson's committee is a textbook
example of the Washington version of stone soup, in which, with the
right skills and connections, one can turn nothing into something. For
the most part, the committee did very little original research or
investigation, instead recycling work done by other committees and
agencies. The difference, however, was that Johnson had a gift for
working the media. In this pretelevision era, the term "soundbite" had
yet to be coined, but Johnson was a master of it nonetheless. The
committee's first report was really an earlier, prewar report on the
nation's rubber supply. In the hands of Johnson and his staffer Horace
Busby, the report became a major story. "Phrases like 'darkest days,'
'business as usual,' 'too little and too late' leapt out of the final
report," writes Caro. Newspapers were particularly enamored of Johnson's
description of Defense Department desuetude as "siesta psychology."

Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of substance, the preparedness
committee gave Johnson his first national attention. But the favor of
the Old Bulls and a handful of headlines were not nearly enough to
secure Johnson's ultimate prize, the presidency. Recognizing that the
traditional path to power in the Senate, and ultimately to the White
House, was still largely closed to a junior senator, Johnson decided to
create his own path. Here was where Johnson's cunning as a political
entrepreneur came into play. As Caro writes:

Lyndon Johnson's political genius was creative not merely in the lower,
technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there
was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his
career, most impressive, it was his capacity to look at an institution
that possessed only limited political power--an institution that no one
else thought of having the potential for any more than limited political
power--and to see in that institution the potential for such substantial
political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such
power, and in the process of transforming it, to reap from that
transformation substantial personal power for himself.

Johnson aide Bobby Baker put it more succinctly: "He knows what makes
the mules plow."

The institution that Johnson chose was the party leadership of the
Senate. Almost utterly lacking in formal power, party leadership was
more often the graveyard of political careers than the launching pad. No
Senate Democratic leader had possessed any influence to speak of since
Joseph Robinson in the 1930s. The Democratic leaders immediately
preceding Johnson, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of
Arizona, had been disasters, utterly incapable of bridging the
differences between the party's liberal Northern and conservative
Southern wings. In fact, the demands of the job had contributed to the
election defeats of both men, Lucas in 1950 and McFarland in 1952. Now,
following the Republican sweep of 1952, the position of minority leader
stood open. Since no else wanted the position, Johnson, with Russell's
blessing, ascended to the post. Only four years into his first term,
Lyndon Johnson was now at least the nominal leader of the Senate
Democrats.

And Johnson soon converted nominal leadership in their power, explaining
that they needed to put their best people forward to defend against the
Republicans. But that would require handing out committee positions on
the basis of ability, not seniority. Using a combination of persuasion
and horse-trading, Johnson managed to make enough room to place every
Democrat on at least one major committee. In doing so, he transformed
the Senate, imbuing its committees, at least on the Democratic side,
with fresh blood. More important for Johnson, his own power had been
enhanced greatly. Dozens of members, liberals and conservatives,
Northerners and Southerners, now owed their committee assignments to
him, and that meant power.

Revamping the seniority system was but the first way Johnson became
master of the Senate. While much has been written about the famous
Johnson "treatment," LBJ's in-your-face style of persuasion, Caro
demonstrates that these skills, effective though they were, were not the
only ones at his disposal. Deploying a skilled staff, he soon knew more
about what was happening in the Senate than any other member, making him
the "go-to guy" for information. He managed to negotiate unanimous
consent agreements to limit debate, so that minor bills of importance to
individual senators could be passed with dispatch. Johnson was also a
skilled parliamentarian, using his knowledge of Senate rules and
procedures to outwit the majority Republicans. Finally, Johnson had an
astute grasp of national politics, demonstrated most effectively in the
battle over the Bricker Amendment. Advanced by Republican isolationists,
the constitutional amendment would have severely restricted presidential
power in foreign policy by requiring treaties to be approved by the
state legislatures as well as the Senate. Johnson not only managed to
defeat the amendment but to do so in a way that aligned the Democrats
with the popular Eisenhower against Congressional Republicans.

No method was beneath Johnson. He was just as willing to destroy the
careers of his Senate colleagues as he had been with Leland Olds.
Perhaps more than any other senator, Kentucky's Earle Clements had been
loyal to Johnson, "dog loyal," in Caro's words. But after a bill
supported by Johnson failed to pass on a tie vote, Johnson forced
Clements to switch his vote, although he knew it would destroy
Clements's re-election hopes. In the case of Virgil Chapman, also of
Kentucky, Johnson helped to destroy not only his career but his life.
Even though Johnson knew Chapman was falling further and further into
the depths of alcoholism, his response was not compassion but
manipulation. He would bring Chapman to his office after the Senate
recessed and ply him with drinks until the inebriated Kentuckian would
agree to anything Johnson wanted. Chapman eventually died in a drunk
driving accident.

Johnson's success as minority leader helped the Democrats regain control
of the Senate after the 1954 elections. Now the majority leader, Johnson
further extended his power. As a consequence, the Senate began to act
with new efficiency and effectiveness. And even though Johnson never
strayed too far from Russell and the other conservative senators upon
whom he relied, he still managed to help Democratic liberals to achieve
at least some of their legislative goals. By the mid-1950s, the changes
wrought by Johnson had dispelled much of the criticism leveled against
the Senate.

Caro, however, suggests that Johnson might have destroyed the Senate in
order to save it, since these changes came at the cost of diminishing
deliberations, where individual senators could educate and inform the
public on the great issues of the day. He quotes Paul Douglas, liberal
Democratic senator from Illinois during the 1950s and oftentimes a foe
of Johnson, who charged, "Under Johnson, the Senate functions like a
Greek tragedy. All the action takes place offstage, before the play
begins. Nothing is left to open and spontaneous debate, nothing is left
to the participants but the enactment of their prescribed roles." Caro
goes further, suggesting that by limiting debate, Johnson was making the
Senate an expression of his own mania for control and aversion to debate
and dissent.

Regardless of Johnson's real motivations for limiting debate, this is an
overly romantic view of Senate proceedings, in which debate consists
more of partisan bickering and mundane bloviating than reasoned and
informed discourse. Furthermore, unlimited debate is tailor-made for
defenders of the status quo, allowing them great power to block any
measure to which they object. Caro even seems to acknowledge this in a
footnote, where he quotes Johnson aide Harry McPherson, "Complaints
about limiting debates...often turned out to be based on a plaintiff's
annoyance that he must either miss a vote or forgo a speaking engagement
back home. And besides, who knew better than liberals the enervating
consequences of unlimited debate."

Caro may be right that Johnson saved the Senate, but he doesn't consider
whether it was worth saving in the first place. Yes, Johnson did reform
the chamber so that it could legislate more effectively, but the
institution remained and remains a throwback to a predemocratic era. Not
only does the Senate's equal representation of states grossly distort
the one-person, one-vote principle, but the ability to filibuster means
that forty-one senators, even if they represent the twenty-one smallest
states (with only 11 percent of the total population), can veto any
piece of legislation. And since Republicans predominate in small states,
the institution serves only to magnify their power. For example, even
though Democrats have a 50-49 edge in the current Senate (the
remaining member is Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont), sixty senators
represent states won by George W. Bush in the 2000 election. By saving
the Senate, one might argue, Johnson only succeeded in maintaining an
institution that has traditionally served to reinforce conservatives and
the status quo.

In 1956, Johnson thought the time was right to make his move for the
Democratic nomination. But this effort was doomed before it even began.
First, he refused to be an active candidate, thus much of the support
from the South and West that might have been his if he wanted it went to
other candidates. Even if Johnson had run a more active and skillful
campaign, it was clear that he never had enough liberal support to win
the nomination. For all that he had accomplished in the Senate, Johnson
was still viewed as suspect by Democratic liberals. In some ways, as
Caro suggests, the liberals' criticism was unfair. Johnson was no Hubert
Humphrey, to be sure, but he was also no Richard Russell or James
Eastland. During his twelve years in the Senate, Johnson's Americans for
Democratic Action liberal-voting score was fifty-six, just about average
for the party and essentially splitting the difference between the
Southern Democratic average of thirty-seven and the Northern Democratic
average of seventy-five. Moreover, during his tenure as majority leader
from 1955 to 1960, Johnson's average score was sixty-five.

But Johnson recognized that his overall ADA score was not the real
issue. By the mid-1950s, Democratic liberals increasingly used civil
rights as a litmus test for support. According to Caro, Johnson would
tell friends privately, "I want to run the Senate. I want to pass the
bills that need to be passed. I want my party to do right. But all I
ever hear from the liberals is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra." (During the 1964
campaign, Johnson would use the same refrain in a very different
context, telling a New Orleans audience of a dying Southern senator who
wanted to give one more speech, a good Democratic speech, because the
only speeches the people of his state ever heard were "Nigra, Nigra,
Nigra.") Caro goes on to add that the conclusion for Johnson was clear:

He knew now that the only way to realize his great ambition was to
fight--really fight, fight aggressively and effectively--for civil
rights; in fact, it was probably necessary for him not only to fight but
to fight and win: given their conviction that he controlled the Senate,
the only way the liberals would be satisfied of his good intentions
would be if that body passed a civil rights bill. But therein lay a
seemingly insoluble dilemma: that way--the only way--did not seem a
possible way. Because while he couldn't win his party's presidential
nomination with only southern support, he couldn't win it with only
northern support either. Scrubbing off the southern taint thoroughly
enough within the next four years to become so overwhelmingly a liberal
favorite that he could win the nomination with northern votes alone was
obviously out of the question, so dispensing with southern support was
not feasible: he had to keep the states of the Old Confederacy on his
side. And yet a public official who fought for civil rights invariably
lost those states.

This dilemma sets up another book within a book and the dramatic climax
of Master of the Senate, the battle over the 1957 Civil Rights
Act. This is where Caro's gifts as a storyteller really come alive, and
his account provides what is surely one of the best analyses of the
legislative process ever written. Moreover, Caro is right to label
Johnson's role in the passage of this legislation as an exercise of
"genius." But Caro goes too far in suggesting that the 1957 Civil Rights
Act marked a turning point at which Johnson's "compassion, and the
ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last."

Caro does recognize that the practical impact of the 1957 legislation
was inconsequential and far less significant than the later Civil Rights
Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while the bill's
proponents described it as half a loaf, Caro agrees with Humphrey, who
described it as a "crumb." Nonetheless, Caro claims that as the first
civil rights measure to pass the Senate and to be enacted into law since
1875, the legislation was of immense symbolic importance and the
harbinger of things to come. "The Civil Rights Act of 1957," according
to Caro, "was hope." Caro has a point, but a debatable one. The law did
raise hopes, but by accomplishing so little, many of those hopes ended
up dashed. Furthermore, while the 1957 act was a first step toward more
effective legislation, it would take another eight years to complete the
journey, eight more years of Jim Crow and disfranchisement, of
oppression and violence. Hope was better than nothing, but help is what
was really needed.

And help would have been provided then, if not for Lyndon Johnson. Help
was contained in the civil rights bill proposed by the Eisenhower
Administration and passed by the House, with strong provisions against
discrimination in public accommodations and voting, along with effective
enforcement mechanisms. But Johnson knew that such a bill was utterly
unacceptable to his Southern colleagues. Thus, while Johnson recognized
that he had to fight for a civil rights bill, it couldn't be
this civil rights bill.

Consequently, Johnson's first maneuver was to help defeat an effort by
Republicans and liberal Democrats to rewrite Senate Rule 22 in order to
short-circuit the expected Southern filibuster. At the opening of the
1957 session, pro-civil rights senators sought a ruling from Vice
President Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as the Senate's
presiding officer, that the Senate was not a continuing body and
therefore was not bound by previous rules. That would mean that a
majority of senators could establish a new rule allowing debate to be
shut off with only a simple majority, not the usual and nearly
unobtainable sixty-four votes. Indeed, Nixon, hoping to swing black
votes to the GOP, would have issued such a decision. But before he could
do so, Johnson used his prerogative as majority leader to move to table
the proposed rules change. Using all the skill and power he had amassed
as majority leader, Johnson managed to get a majority for his motion.
But it was a 55-38 tally. If only seven votes had gone the other
way (the three absentees having announced against Johnson's motion), the
motion would have lost, Nixon would have issued his decision, the
filibuster would have been broken and an effective civil rights bill
would have been passed in 1957, not 1964. As a result of the defeat on
Rule 22, the bill that ultimately did pass was only a very weak voting
rights measure.

If ever one needs evidence of the contingency of history, imagine, if
you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have
died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The
Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil
rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson. From there, one can spin
off any number of plausible scenarios that result in a very different
history of the past forty years.

But none of these scenarios were acceptable to the Lyndon Johnson of
1957, since they would have conflicted with his ambition; and at that
point, despite Caro's claim, his ambition was still more important than
his compassion. Switching sides on Rule 22 would have destroyed his
Southern support and with it any chance he had of becoming President.
Johnson's compassion would eventually shine through, and as a result,
civil rights would eventually come to black America. But they would not
come until Lyndon Johnson's ambition would allow them to come.

Pat Buchanan surely holds the record for the greatest impact on a presidential election with the fewest votes. With less than 0.43 percent of the tally nationally, he still managed to decide the 2000 election. But for the thousands of votes mistakenly cast for Buchanan in Palm Beach because of the infamously confusing "butterfly" ballot, Al Gore would be President today and George W. Bush would be the Republican Michael Dukakis.

Buchanan's pernicious influence, however, did not end with the 2000 election. He's now picking up where he left off with his infamous "cultural war" speech to the 1992 Republican convention, a speech, as Molly Ivins quipped, that "sounded better in the original German." Well, Buchanan's been translating from Deutsch again, this time with The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, his new book. The Death of the West harks back to the xenophobic jeremiads of the early twentieth century, such as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color, Houston Stewart Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.

Indeed, enterprising journalists and historians looking to expose the next Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin should consider comparing Buchanan's book side by side with these others. In addition to revising Spengler's title, Buchanan shares Stoddard's love of watery metaphors--both books gush with rising tides, surging oceans and flooding rivers of nonwhites, all of which push inexorably against the ever more precarious dams and dikes around the white world. The two authors also share a predilection for quoting Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of the "white man's burden."

Each of these earlier books shares the same simple theme: It's Us against Them, and with fewer and fewer of Us and more and more of Them, things look grim for Us. Buchanan readily accepts the "demography is destiny" argument: "As a growing population has long been a mark of healthy nations and rising civilizations, falling populations have been a sign of nations and civilizations in decline." Buchanan's data clearly put the West into the latter category. "In 1960, people of European ancestry were one-fourth of the world's population; in 2000, they were one-sixth, in 2050, they will be one-tenth. These are the statistics of a vanishing race."

And who's responsible for this disappearance? For Buchanan, women bear most of the blame. Liberated by technological and cultural changes, he argues, Western women have abandoned their true calling as designated racial breeders. "Only the mass reconversion of Western women to an idea that they seem to have given up--that the good life lies in bearing and raising children and sending them out into the world to continue the family and nation--can prevent the Death of the West."

Faced with declining birthrates, the only alternative available to Western nations if they wish to maintain themselves is massive immigration from the burgeoning populations of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But for Buchanan, this medicine is worse than the disease, since immigration on this scale entails the introduction of too many nonwhite non-Christians. Regarding Europe, he writes: "And as the millions pour into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East, they will bring their Arab and Islamic culture, traditions, loyalties, and faith, and create replicas of their homelands in the heartland of the West. Will they assimilate, or will they endure as indigestible parts of Africa and Arabia in the base camp of what was once Christendom?" Clearly he thinks the latter. The United States faces a similar danger, he warns: "Uncontrolled immigration threatens to deconstruct the nation we grew up in and convert America into a conglomeration of peoples with almost nothing in common--not history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors. Balkanization beckons."

Buchanan must know that many have rung this tocsin before him, and each time it has been a false alarm. The West's population has probably declined relative to the rest of the world ever since the Western world defined itself as such. For example, when Stoddard wrote in 1922, he sounded the alarm because Western nations had declined to only one-third of the world's population. By 1960, as Buchanan points out, the Western share of the world's population had fallen to one-fourth. Despite this relative decline in population, he considers 1960 as the height of Western power and influence. Furthermore, most evidence suggests that Western nations are at least as powerful now as in 1960, even with the decline in population.

Buchanan's warnings about the United States ring just as hollow. Of the 30 million foreign-born residents, he claims, "Even the Great Wave of immigration from 1890 to 1920 was nothing like this." He's right--that wave surpassed the current one. Today, foreign-born residents make up about 11 percent of the US population, but from the 1870s to the 1920s, that number fluctuated between 13 percent and 15 percent.

Buchanan, however, also argues that today's immigrants are fundamentally different from earlier generations of newcomers; but again, there's no evidence for this. America was hardly more familiar to a Southern Italian peasant who came to New York City in 1900 than it is to an immigrant today from Nigeria or the Philippines. If anything, the spread of global markets and American popular culture has made recent immigrants more attuned to the ways of their new home than their predecessors of a century ago. Furthermore, the bulk of contemporary immigrants come from Latin America, and thus possess the Christian faith that Buchanan views as central to any definition of America. Indeed, the vast majority of Latin American immigrants share Buchanan's Catholicism. Nonetheless, these immigrants "not only come from another culture, but millions are of another race," making it difficult if not impossible for them to assimilate into US society. While Buchanan might consider Latinos as his brothers in Christ, he draws the line at having them as neighbors or fellow citizens.

September 11, Buchanan argues, painfully exposed the threat from contemporary immigrants: "Suddenly, we awoke to the realization that among our millions of foreign-born, a third are here illegally, tens of thousands are loyal to regimes with which we could be at war, and some are trained terrorists sent here to murder Americans." But the past is full of similar warnings about the enemy within. During World War II, anti-Japanese prejudices combined with national security concerns to result in the internment of thousands of US citizens. During World War I, "unhyphenated" Americans saw German-Americans as the Kaiser's minions, engaging in sedition and sabotage to aid the cause of the Fatherland. Yet as these instances demonstrate, the real threat, then as now, existed largely in fevered nativist minds.

This selective and myopic view of American nativism runs throughout The Death of the West. On the one hand, Buchanan refers to nativist statements by such people as Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge to support his assertion that concerns over immigration are not un-American. On the other hand, while he is correct that nativism has always been one of America's multiple political traditions, Buchanan has nary a mention of how pervasive, inaccurate and pernicious such sentiments have been. Of the Know-Nothings, he knows nothing. He quotes Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party, but includes no mention that anti-Catholic prejudices made a major contribution to his landslide defeat in the 1928 election, as he was vigorously opposed by Protestant leaders and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. (After the election, the joke went, Smith sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: "Unpack.") To Buchanan, it seems, anti-Catholic sentiment is a recent development and limited to left-wing intellectuals. Overall, he chooses to ignore the fact that nearly every immigrant to this country confronted nativists who argued that their race, religion, ethnicity or culture made them unfit to become full American citizens. Furthermore, if these previous nativists had had their way, they would have excluded the ancestors of most current American citizens, including Buchanan's.

Buchanan recognizes that he's in a minefield with this subject, and he makes some efforts to tread lightly. To rebut accusations that he's an anti-Semite, he sheds crocodile tears over the danger to Israel from a growing Arab population and occasionally (but not consistently) refers to America's Judeo-Christian values. But like Dr. Strangelove's hand, Buchanan's anti-Semitism refuses to stay under control. As examples of conservative leaders who have failed to fight the culture wars with sufficient zeal, he singles out Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Norman Podhoretz. One might well ask why these three when one could level similar charges against Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, John McCain and even George W. Bush.

By the end of the book Buchanan has dropped all pretenses, declaring America to be a Christian nation. His racism is equally apparent. For example, in addition to warning that many current immigrants are of a different--that is, nonwhite--race, he includes a lengthy discussion of black crime rates. Given that most blacks can trace their American ancestry back further than most white Americans, it's clear that Buchanan defines America not by "history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors" but by race.

If Buchanan's diagnosis of the problem is objectionable, his solution is even worse. For him, democracy, a shared culture and even a common race offer no defense against the West's impending doom. Rather, he argues, "If the West expects a long life, it had best recapture the fighting faith of its youth." And what were these youthful characteristics? "Protestant monarchs and Catholic kings alike did not flinch at burning heretics or drawing and quartering them at the Tyburn tree. The Christianity that conquered the world was not a milquetoast faith, and the custodians of that faith did not believe all religions were equal. One was true; all the rest were false." To believe otherwise invites disaster, "For it is in the nature of things that nations and religions rule or are ruled."

Buchanan's right-wing nativism is nothing new, so it might be tempting to dismiss him and his book as inconsequential. After all, didn't the 2000 election prove that Buchanan had only marginal electoral support and that even the Republican Party considers his views too extreme? But votes don't always measure influence, and The Death of the West has clearly struck a responsive chord. Not only does it stand near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but its author remains a prominent fixture on the TV talk-show circuit. Indeed, it's interesting to contrast the reception of The Death of the West with that of Buchanan's previous book, A Republic, Not an Empire. The latter set off a firestorm of criticism, especially among Republicans and conservatives, when Buchanan argued that Hitler had not threatened the United States. If anything, The Death of the West is even worse, since Buchanan moves beyond minimizing the danger of Hitler to the open espousal of many of his doctrines. Yet this time around, the conservative commentators have not been nearly as critical. Then, of course, Buchanan was in the middle of bolting the GOP, potentially splitting the conservative vote and throwing the election to the Democrats. None of this came to pass, with Buchanan even helping Bush to win Florida. But the lesson seems clear: Conservatives are more than willing to tolerate Buchanan's racism and xenophobia, so long as he doesn't pose a direct threat to their political interests.

Even more disturbing than Buchanan's kid-gloves treatment by the media and the right is that the book's popularity stems from and seems likely to reinforce the upsurge in nativist sentiments after September 11. For many Americans, those tragic events gave even more reason to see the world in manichean terms and to divide Americans along lines of race, religion and ethnicity. Consequently, relatively open immigration policies came under attack. In Congress, a House caucus devoted to immigration restriction doubled in membership after September 11. Representative James Traficant, Democrat of Ohio, spoke for many of those members when he asked, "How do you defend your home if your front and back doors are unlocked? What do we stand for if we can't secure our borders? How many more Americans will die?... If 300,000 illegal immigrants can gain access to America every year, trying to find a better life, do not doubt for one moment that a larger contingent of people with evil intentions could gain entry into America and continue to kill American citizens."

Thankfully, such sentiments have not gained much headway in the ensuing months. Although the Bush Administration has backed off its proposal for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants from Mexico, it has shown few signs of embracing significant immigration restrictions in response to September 11 and has even agreed to restore food-stamp eligibility to legal immigrants. In Congress, immigration opponents have failed even to gain a formal hearing for their proposals. Yet the popularity of The Death of the West shows that nativist attitudes have not disappeared, and Buchanan's diatribe will undoubtedly help reinforce such views. Furthermore, both opponents and supporters of open immigration recognize that another incident of terrorism is perhaps all that is needed to turn The Death of the West from polemic to policy.

Today, as America undergoes a similar retreat from the gains of the civil rights era, two books mirror a similar split in the strategies and tactics of black Americans. In Creating Equal: My Fight Against Racial Preferences, Ward Connerly casts himself as a latter-day version of Washington. In fact, Connerly takes great pride in a comment made to him by Washington's great-grandson: "Your message is basically the same as his. Stand on your own two feet, rely on yourself, and stop blaming the world for your problems."

The first part of Connerly's book provides a Washingtonian, Up From Slavery-esque account of early years. For him, proper doses of family love, discipline and hard work are all that's necessary and sufficient for success. "It is not the life we're given, but the life we make of the life we're given that counts," he opines. Not only does Connerly fail to recognize that race and class exert a powerful effect on what kind of life we can make for ourselves, but certain aspects of his own life story ring false. As he tells it, one of the central events in his upbringing was as a teenager, when he and his maternal grandmother (who raised him after the death of his mother) were forced to go on welfare, an experience that he found stigmatizing and degrading. After a year and a half, Connerly decided that he'd had enough, and he stormed out of the house to look for a job. According to him, he accepted a part-time (he's quite clear on this point) job that paid 65 cents an hour, which allowed him to make $80 a month--$20 more than what welfare provided. For Connerly, this relative amount is important, since he wishes to demonstrate that hard work, even on a part-time basis, is more profitable than welfare. But at 65 cents an hour, one would have to have worked nearly full-time to earn that much, suggesting either that Connerly's memory might be a bit selective or that the value of low-wage work over welfare might not be as obvious as he would like it to seem.

But discrepancy or no, Connerly rarely misses an opportunity to criticize contemporary young blacks. In one instance, he writes: "As I drove out of my old neighborhood, an elderly black man waved at me, and a black teenager spit in the direction of my car. I wasn't sure what to make of any of this." (If he wasn't sure, what is the point of the anecdote--other than for the reader to draw an unfavorable impression of young blacks?)

For the rest of Connerly's work experience, success would rely at least as much on political cronyism as on luck and pluck. He relates several instances in which he parlayed his insider connections into personal financial gain. In one, his friend Pete Wilson (then Mayor of San Diego) called Connerly about a new federal program for local governments, telling him, "I wanted to give you a heads-up on this. You probably ought to take an interest." Connerly indeed took an interest, and a lucrative one at that: "I immediately made contacts with cities and counties all over the state telling them about the bill and how they could control their own lower-income housing activities. Connerly & Associates established many relationships then that continue today."

Ironically, Connerly's professional experiences reinforce one of the arguments cited for affirmative action--that such policies provide black Americans with a chance to partake of the personal ties and old-boy networks that are clearly one of the perks of elite education and other socially inclusive situations. Furthermore, while Connerly denies ever having benefited directly from affirmative action, the claim seems implausible given his work with California government agencies, contractors and lobbyists over the past four decades. Even he admits that his appointment to the University of California Board of Regents came about because "an understanding had been reached between the governor and the senate, which has the power of confirmation, that future appointments would reflect greater 'diversity.'" Despite this, Connerly claims that race was not the crucial factor in his selection but instead that he was a crony of Governor Wilson. "Cronyism," Connerly claims, "is at least based on one's individual qualities; diversity is based on factors that render individuality irrelevant." Connerly was indeed a crony, but more important, he was a black crony, and thus ideal window dressing for white Republicans like Wilson, who sought to raise their political fortunes by attacking affirmative action.

Throughout his book, Connerly insists that he opposes affirmative action for reasons of principle, not out of a desire to curry favor with wealthy and powerful conservatives or to shed the psychological baggage of his mixed-raced ancestry. There seems no reason to doubt his sincerity on this score, but why does he consistently refuse to see his opponents in a similar light? The stories of those who have benefited from affirmative action are dismissed as "maudlin" or "specious." Black civil rights leaders who support affirmative action are charlatans and demagogues, and the ordinary blacks who agree with them are dupes. Connerly even includes Colin Powell in this latter category, claiming that he changed his tune on affirmative action after "Jesse Jackson and the 'brothers' got to him." On the other hand, those who support Connerly's position are utterly altruistic. In his acknowledgments, Connerly mentions, among others, Glenn Campbell (former head of the Hoover Institution), Richard Gilder, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Mellon Scaife, the John M. Olin Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation--all of whom were motivated solely by the "desire to make this nation a better place."

Despite such a high-profile roll of conservative supporters deserving of mention, Connerly would have us believe that his various anti-affirmative action campaigns are grassroots efforts by ordinary citizens outraged at the injustice of "racial preferences." Yet Connerly's own account tells a very different story--one in which his high-profile connections have again made all the difference in the world. For example, in early 1996 the original authors of Proposition 209 (the California Civil Rights Initiative, which abolished state-sponsored affirmative action) were unable to muster the resources or support to gather the required number of signatures to get on the November ballot. That is, until Connerly stepped in and helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Later in the campaign, Connerly secured a $1 million donation from Rupert Murdoch at a lunch meeting with him in the publisher's penthouse apartment.

Connerly's account of the campaign for Prop 209 does contain one important revelation: He confirms an allegation made in Nicholas Lemann's recent book The Big Test [see David Karen, "Scoring the SATs," December 13, 1999], that the passage of Prop 209 resulted from a compromise between opponents of affirmative action and the Clinton Administration. Fearing that the issue might undermine Bill Clinton's re-election bid in California or even nationally, the White House made sure that the state Democratic Party and labor unions would not provide funding needed by the anti-Prop 209 forces to mount an effective campaign against the measure. Even though the outcome was as rigged as a professional wrestling match, CCRI won by a margin of 54-46, hardly the landslide that many had predicted. In fact, exit polls show that the outcome rested overwhelmingly on white votes, as blacks, Latinos and Asians (whom Connerly conspicuously cites as the victims of affirmative action) all opposed the measure by healthy margins.

These heavily racialized results reveal the fundamental weakness in Connerly's claim that the campaign against affirmative action is an effort at color-blindness and neutrality. The method by which the attack on it has been mounted--direct voter referendums--reveals an overwhelming pattern of white racism. Throughout American history, in nearly every instance in which they have been given a direct vote on the matter, the majority of white Americans have rejected any measure beneficial to the interests of blacks. At times, such propositions have passed, but only with a coalition of a majority of minorities and a minority of whites. Connerly seems to have blinded himself to this pattern. He proudly mentions the role that he played in the passage of the Rumford Act, a pioneering open-housing measure passed by the California legislature in the early sixties. What he conspicuously leaves out is that in a 1964 referendum, whites overwhelmingly voted to overturn the act. In this respect, the comparison between Connerly and Booker T. Washington fails. As problematic as his message was, at least Washington never made common cause with white reactionaries and led the charge to further deny blacks their rights and access to beneficial programs.

If Booker T. Washington is to Ward Connerly as tragedy is to farce, then in The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, Randall Robinson shows himself to be a worthy heir to W.E.B. Du Bois. Robinson is a powerful and eloquent writer, and at its best, The Debt compares favorably to the literary quality shown by Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.

Like Du Bois, Robinson possesses a sweeping historical vision. Unlike Connerly and others who wish to believe that the history of American race relations began in 1965, Robinson recognizes that a sense of history is crucial to the current predicament of American race relations. He understands that the subordination of black Americans requires a limited historical perspective, and that if one goes back in time to before such subordination began, that is to undermine its very basis:

Far too many Americans of African descent believe their history starts in America with bondage and struggles forward from there toward today's second-class citizenship. The cost of this obstructed view of ourselves is incalculable. How can we be collectively successful if we have no idea or, worse, the wrong idea of who we were and, therefore, are?... This then is the nub of it. America's contemporary racial problem cannot be solved, racism cannot be arrested, achievement gaps cannot be fully closed until Americans--all Americans--are repaired in their views of Africa's role in history.

Robinson then offers a brief retelling of some of the accomplishments of Africans prior to the rise of the slave trade in the fifteenth century, reinforcing the point that notions of black inferiority are not reason for--but the result of and a pretextual justification for--centuries of exploitation at the hands of whites.

Robinson's discussion of Africa also shows another parallel with Du Bois. For both men, racism is global in nature, and the oppression of blacks in nations around the world is interconnected. As founder and president of TransAfrica, Robinson has been both an observer and participant in US foreign policy as it relates to blacks in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. This perspective allows him to detail the way in which US policy in these regions is a combination of benign neglect, condescension, outright hostility and even exploitation. Such ill treatment of blacks abroad, as Robinson points out, is both a cause and a consequence of the inequality of blacks in the United States. To treat blacks around the world as civilized equals would only call attention to the fact of racial inequality at home; and if American blacks were truly equal, it would compel the United States to treat black nations around the world with the respect and dignity provided to nations that are not.

A final similarity between Robinson and Du Bois is that neither is content to argue for scraps. Early in the twentieth century, Du Bois called for the restoration of full citizenship rights for black Americans, at a time when black leaders like Washington and liberal whites believed (in vain) that the most that could be achieved was that blacks might be able to exist in their subordinate position without the terror of lynching and mob violence. For Robinson, debates over the retention of affirmative action are inadequate. Although he supports such policies, he states that the benefits "will never come anywhere near to balancing the books here.... I choose not to spend my limited gifts and energy and time fighting only for the penny due when a fortune is owed."

It is that fortune that forms the core of Robinson's argument in The Debt. For him, the debt that America owes to blacks is massive, in both psychological and material terms. Although for centuries black Americans have contributed to society, they have been systematically denied their true history, forced to live under a system that ascribes their subordination to their own inadequacies, and cheated out of material wealth. Such inequality is neither trivial nor can it be overcome by laissez-faire policies, as offered by Connerly. As Robinson writes, "Parallel lines never touch, no matter how far in time or space they extend."

In Robinson's view, for these lines to begin to move toward one another requires reparations by white Americans to black Americans. He makes a convincing case that financial compensation is due, and, given reparations paid to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and to victims of the Holocaust, that there is sufficient legal and political precedent for such a policy. After reading this book, I am convinced that the question is not whether black Americans are owed reparations, but rather how much.

Still, many, including some who are sympathetic to Robinson's intentions, will argue that even mentioning the word reparations will only antagonize whites and make it even more difficult to muster support for lesser measures of benefit to black Americans. This is undoubtedly true, but throughout American history black advancement has always been divisive. Any real attempt to address racial inequality will create, at least in the short run, more division rather than less. In this regard, Robinson is to be credited with stirring up the pot. Injustice always works best when both victim and perpetrator are relatively blind to its operation. By speaking out on this issue, he makes it more difficult for blacks and whites to remain behind a veil of claimed ignorance. Indeed, as Robinson writes, for black Americans even to raise the concept is to move in the right direction: "The issue is not whether we can, or will, win reparations. The issue rather is whether we will fight for reparations, because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due." Given the fact that few white Americans are willing to forgo voluntarily the benefits of America's racial hierarchy, such activism by blacks is probably necessary for progress.

The benefits of Robinson's proposal go beyond the merely psychological. By discussing the issue of reparations, he focuses attention on one of the most important aspects of American racial inequality--the staggering gap in wealth between black and white Americans. As scholars like Melvin Oliver, Thomas Shapiro and Dalton Conley have shown, this wealth gap is a direct result of centuries of racism, abetted in large part by government policies and programs. Furthermore, wealth inequality has a significant impact on a whole range of life circumstances, including family stability, home ownership, education, employment, welfare and the ability to transmit class status to one's children. Consequently, remedying racial inequality in America requires remedying wealth inequality. And reparations are clearly a means to do so.

After reading The Debt, one hopes that Robinson and Du Bois will be dissimilar in one important way. Despite his eloquence and intellect, Du Bois's protests went largely unheard as the forces of reaction descended upon America. Let us hope that in the coming century, Americans of all colors will avoid this mistake by heeding the words of Randall Robinson.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size