Explaining America on Race


“What is the cause of racism?” one of my English-language students recently asked. Abdullah is from Iraq, a country itself riven with divisions. But the virulence and persistence of America’s problems between white and black Americans is dumbfounding to him and to the rest of my class, and I struggle to explain it. I have chosen the theme of this class to be American history, but I am helpless to explain the cause of America’s biggest issue.

“What is the cause of racism?”

The question reverberates down through the timeline of the history I have presented to my students–from white Europeans’ encounters with and ultimate betrayal, suppression, and impoverishment of Native Americans, to the murders of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and so many others and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, with the accompanying inflammatory response from the All Lives Matter (that is, White Lives Matter More crowd, aka Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, et al.).

My first, and maybe my last, answer is, essentially, tribalism. Most humans tend to prefer their tribes over other tribes, perhaps because when we deal with your own tribe, we have a deep understanding of the cultural values that it inculcates in its members. We have some basis for prediction about how members of our tribe will behave: We eat this way; we drink these things; our clothes are made like this; we worship in that way; our food is prepared like this; we speak to our grandparents so but to strangers in this other way.

Seeking some way to predict others’ behavior, we fall back on these known cultural traditions as a shortcut to knowing others more deeply, as if knowing how a person prepares his food is a key to understanding his deeper character.

Of course, that approach is ill-advised.

Shared culture–tribalism–tells us a little, but very little, about a person’s deeper character. The rest we have to find out by shared experience, such as working alongside someone every day, or going through some critical experience together, or talking honestly and at length.

To a discouraging extent, however, despite decades of attempts to desegregate, whites and blacks live separate lives in this country and rarely indulge in those shared conversations. We go to school together (sometimes; in many places, schools are as segregated as they ever were), we work alongside each other, and yet we hardly ever touch it–the third rail in American society–in our exchanges. We don’t let the other into our private thoughts about this most important issue. We stay silent, on both sides.

Explaining present-day America, with its Trumpian demagoguery and its bitter political divisions, requires me to excavate, as much as I can, its racial history, and one of the most interesting periods of American history is the most recent–the years, as it happens, of my own baby-boomer family’s existence, from 1946 until now.

My parents were married in 1946, the year that World War II ended. My oldest brother was born in 1947, the year before President Truman desegregated the military and called for the introduction of civil-rights legislation. My second brother was born in 1949 as Southern Democrats began to pay the price electorally for Truman’s stand on race relations. I was born in 1954, the year of the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) Supreme Court decision overturning legal segregation. My youngest brother was born in 1956, the year Clinton, Tennessee’s high school became the first in the South to attempt to desegregate.

During my elementary school years, 1961-1966, the nation’s political orientation reversed itself. In the South, Democrats (the anti-Lincoln party) became Republicans and Republicans (the Lincoln party) became Democrats. This is a point that is repeatedly (and dishonestly) ignored today when current Republicans claim to belong to the “party of Lincoln.” Trying to explain to students from another country why the switch happened has been challenging, but today I found an interesting article that readably summarizes recent research on the issue.

A pair of researchers have taken a new look at voter/media data from the early 1960s to find out exactly what was the cause of Southern whites’ leaving the Democratic Party and the Republican Party picking up that group (the Southern Strategy). This is a well-written summary of that report. The answer isn’t surprising, but the regression analysis helps confirm what we pretty much knew: Southern whites’ racial intolerance for blacks drove the phenomenon, and nothing else really accounts for it.

(to be continued)


5 thoughts on “Explaining America on Race

  1. Step confidently into the mine field, Em. Your friends and family will guide the way. Those who laid the mines will ultimately lose; your timeline demonstrates the trend perfectly. This ideological battle is just taking far too long.p


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