As we pass from 2010 to the new year, Congress resumes in its conservative-dominated configuration. This new wave is sustained by a right-wing power base informed by ideologues who would eviscerate the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equality by restricting voting rights and limiting public expenditures on the "parasites" who leech off the welfare of "their" America.
Many of these views, while wrapped in Ayn Rand’s individualist "ethical egoism," protect a political and social order based on wealth and impermeable group privilege, one also rooted in a segregationist "us versus them" mentality, albeit persisting well beyond the racial divide. Christians versus others. Natives versus immigrants. English-only speakers versus snooty cosmopolitans. Inherited privilege versus equality as birthright.
Consider these recent salvos: Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce is so concerned about the "hijacking" of the Fourteenth Amendment that he has sponsored a bill that would refuse issuance of state birth certificates to children born here whose parents are not legal citizens. Rand Paul, freshman senator from Kentucky, believes that the Fair Housing Act is wrong because "a free society will abide unofficial, private discrimination, even when that means allowing hate-filled groups to exclude people based on the color of their skin." John Cook, the very public member of the Texas State Republican Executive Committee, wants to replace Republican Joe Straus, who is Jewish, as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives because "We elected a House with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian, conservative running it." And Judson Phillips, head of the Tea Party Nation, has endorsed "the original intent" of restricting voting rights to citizens who are property holders because "if you’re a property owner, you actually have a vested stake in the community."
Many policies originally promulgated to maintain economic supremacy by controlling the movement and political force of blacks in the Deep South seem to have come full circle, afflicting not just recent immigrants but poor and middle-class white people. One vivid example is the fate of Gene Cranick, an elderly, wheelchair-bound white resident of Obion County, Tennessee. When a backyard trash fire spread to his house in October, the fire department arrived, only to watch his home burn to the ground because Cranick had not paid a $75 yearly "pay to spray" fee. Cranick had the misfortune to live in an unincorporated area that had the limited services historically associated with black neighborhoods—when fire, sewer and police services would stop at the edge of a town based on the lines of segregation. Richard Kluger’s book Simple Justice relates how in the 1950s civil rights activist Joseph DeLaine’s South Carolina home was apparently targeted by arsonists: "Members of the all-white Summerton fire department were on hand as the wooden house burned to the ground, but they made no effort to put out the flames because DeLaine’s house, they said, was beyond the town limits. And it was—by 100 feet." (For those interested in the details of the legal and political battles for the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of equal citizenship, I highly recommend Patricia Sullivan’s Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.)
Just a few weeks ago, while speaking of his youth in Yazoo City, Mississippi, during the most violent times of the civil rights movement, Governor Haley Barbour became positively misty: "I just don’t remember it as being that bad." How bad wasn’t it? According to Barbour, the White Citizens’ Council heroically ensured school integration and bravely kept the Ku Klux Klan at bay. In fact, the White Citizens’ Council set up a system of all-white private academies that left Mississippi’s public schools virtually all black and all woefully underfunded. It is true that to some degree the White Citizens’ Council often took public stances in opposition to the KKK, yet this professed opposition was not because it was in favor of blacks’ civil rights but because Klan violence attracted international attention, which was often "bad for business." So instead the council tended to espouse resistance to integration through economic threats and the isolation of entire communities.
Indeed, Haley’s elder brother Jeppie was elected mayor of Yazoo City in 1968 on a platform of economic isolation of any blacks (or whites) who pressed for integration. Willie Morris’s 1971 book Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town details what Jeppie described as blacks’ efforts to "get us on our knees so they can tell us what to do." "When I came into office I intended to get some paving and some sewage improvements for the colored," Jeppie said. "But now I can’t get too enthusiastic about it." The time might come, Jeppie warned, for the whites to retaliate with firings and other measures.
Recently, The Huffington Post ran excerpts from a 1956 article by David Halberstam in which Nick Roberts of the Yazoo City Citizens’ Council explained why fifty-one of fifty-three blacks who had signed an integration petition withdrew their names: "If a man works for you, and you believe in something, and that man is working against it and undermining it, why you don’t want him working for you—of course you don’t." This sort of thinking imagines the collective power of the White Citizens’ Council as nothing more than the individual choices of "a man" in dealing with "that man"—both of whom are syntactically equally endowed with options and opportunities. In the aggregate, however, these "preferences" become insidious disguises for a gangsterish mentality by which the endowed "we" eliminates anything but the narrowest sense of community. The rest of the polity, marked as "them," remain alien—all while being chided to pay and pay and pay in order to play. That this creates a controlling class of the economically privileged—to wit, an oligarchy—seems utterly lost on the ground these days.