The selection of Ben Carson to be secretary of housing and urban development is yet more evidence that Donald Trump and his transition team are embracing an approach that uses race as cover for a return to the racially oppressive past.
Carson, whose professional ascent was aided by civil rights victories and affirmative action, has pointedly rejected the very methods that allowed him to access opportunities that were unheard of in America’s pre-civil rights years. He will lead an agency tasked with helping combat poverty and support vulnerable Americans, but Carson has openly dismissed the idea that government can be trusted with that work.
It isn’t just that Carson isn’t qualified; his selection in combination with Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist and Jeff Sessions as attorney general suggests that America is headed toward becoming a Neoconfederacy.
By publicly nominating officials who in a different era would have worn their defiance against racial integration and voting rights as a badge of honor, Trump has publicly sanctioned the politics of massive resistance against civil rights and social justice into an extension of the federal government. He’s made the politics of racial reaction and economic injustice part of the American mainstream.
This is not only stunning, but dangerously echoes the nation’s post-Reconstruction period of “Redemption.” The “redeemer” South derived its name from efforts by white politicians, business leaders and the working class to restore the racial and economic advantages of pre-Civil War America through legal and violent means.
Over the course of a brutal 30-year stretch at the end of the 19th century, they accomplished exactly that, ridding virtually the entire south of black elected officials, disenfranchising black voters and decimating the notion of equal citizenship.
Northern leaders turned a blind eye to the southern horrors of lynching, segregation and racial violence that became normalized enough for a sitting president, Woodrow Wilson, to rid the entire federal workforce of black workers and express public admiration for D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece of racial dissemblance, “The Birth of a Nation.”
The modern civil rights era opened a racial Pandora’s box that exposed deeply rooted myths about racial slavery and the injustice of Jim Crow, among others. While politicians such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace and South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond became icons of the unreconstructed South, political transformations in the rest of the country made such flagrant displays of anti-black racism counterproductive.
America’s post-civil rights landscape thus became coded, or dog-whistle, political messages that stoked racial fears of black crime and violence, but pushed the cruder forms of bigotry to the margins of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Fast forward to when Trump identified himself as both the “law and order” candidate and the voice of a new “silent majority.” Then he innovated a set of rules, using the word “Chicago” as a metaphor for black rage, lawlessness and poverty, exploiting the tragic deaths of law enforcement officers to spark fears of a nationwide crime wave, and publicly supporting “stop and frisk” measures that have been proved to be racially discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, Democrats were apparently mesmerized by GOP-led efforts to frame the coalition that twice elected Barack Obama president with the two highest popular vote totals in American history as little more than “identity politics,” a pastiche of grievance collectors rather than “real Americans.”
America has a long, shameful history when it comes to race and a capacity to allow for the degradation of whole populations based on race, religion, gender, sexuality and difference. We have come too far as a nation to return to an era when people of color, women, and gays and lesbians enjoyed far fewer rights than they do now.
The first step in resisting these efforts is not reaching out to the voters whose resistance to the idea of racial equality, let alone justice, made this possible. It lies in recognizing the larger danger in mainstreaming racism as a political and governing strategy.
We all must summon the moral courage to resist the rhetorical sleight of hand that bashes civil rights as identity politics, identify the “alt-right” as the white supremacists and white nationalists that they are, and label Trump’s impending Cabinet as the most powerful example to date of the Neoconfederacy resumption of power.
Peniel Joseph is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin.
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