Ron DeSantis wants to break the unions and make a temporary advantage permanent.
” . . . In Florida, all of the most important macro-issues of American politics are screaming out as we speak. The proud fascism that DeSantis embodies must be met with radicalism. Clinton-esque Democratic attempts to triangulate their way out of the problem are doomed to fail, and will only serve to drive home the untrue impression that Florida is a red state. You can’t equivocate with DeSantis. He puts Black people in jail at gunpoint for voting; he bans books and outlaws Black history teaching with a bluntness that would make George Orwell blush; he demonizes trans kids, perfectly happy to drive a few young people to suicide if it helps him solidify his own position. This guy is not some sophisticated mastermind — he’s an asshole. He is the embodiment of the worst 30% of Floridians, the ones who make the state a national punchline. And those who roll over for him, like the dozens of college presidents who publicly kowtow to his backwards “vision,” are cowards who will find themselves on the wrong side of history when the uncensored textbooks eventually get written.
That is one thing Florida proves: The absolute need for the Democrats to stop being weak and afraid of their own convictions. The second thing it proves is the absolute centrality of organized labor as a path out of the political quandary that afflicts America. Inequality has killed public faith in institutions, and modern media has entrenched national partisanship to a degree that some perceive as hopeless. Unions can roll back inequality. Unions can bring people of different political persuasions together in common cause in the workplace. Unions can show people an actual functioning democracy. Unions can lead regular people to political activism based on principles they learn by fighting for fair treatment for themselves. Unions can be strong enough to serve as a wall that stops the predations of opportunistic, hateful politicians like Ron DeSantis.
But all of that can only happen if many people are in unions. In Florida, as in the rest of the South, they’re mostly not. Unions need to spend much more money to organize new workers. Unions need to spend much more money organizing in the South. The Democratic Party needs to prioritize and enable this to a much larger degree — out of self-interest, if nothing else. Unions can change people, and they can change Florida, and they can change the country. But only if they rouse themselves out of their stupor and organize millions of people.
All of these things are connected. Working people and environmentalists together can unquestionably be a strong enough coalition to control the state of Florida, far stronger than the petty racists and boat-owning car dealers that make up the DeSantis base. Pulling this together requires a strong labor movement, and it requires the Democratic Party helping to build that movement. There is nothing impossible about any of this. The threat here is bigger than one teachers union, or one state. Ron DeSantis intends to make Florida a stepping stone that he will use to walk into the White House and prove that America is still a racist, oppressive nation at heart. Stop him before he gets there. As a native Floridian, I politely call on the Florida Democrats, unions, teachers, and people of all stripes who don’t prefer life in a dystopia: Get your shit together, before it’s too late. . . “
DeSantis of 2011 praises the Tea Party movement and the backlash it inspired, which cost Democrats the House in 2010. He thinks the movement was absolutely right to identify itself with the American Revolution, fighting against un-American tyrannies of the Obama Democrats. But he argued it should go deeper than symbolic acts like dressing up in 18th-century garb or brandishing rifles at rallies. The book is intended firstly as a wholesale indictment and a game plan, pointing out the ways Republicans should attack “progressives” for the “transformational change” they are attempting—by which DeSantis meant federally mandated health care, corporate and mortgage bailouts, and increased regulation.
DeSantis of 2011 praises the Tea Party movement and the backlash it inspired, which cost Democrats the House in 2010. He thinks the movement was absolutely right to identify itself with the American Revolution, fighting against un-American tyrannies of the Obama Democrats. But he argued it should go deeper than symbolic acts like dressing up in 18th-century garb or brandishing rifles at rallies. The book is intended firstly as a wholesale indictment and a game plan, pointing out the ways Republicans should attack “progressives” for the “transformational change” they are attempting—by which DeSantis meant federally mandated health care, corporate and mortgage bailouts, and increased regulation.
Republican politicians and right-wing activists are transforming one of the Sunshine State’s liberal arts schools into the “Hillsdale of the South,” a strategy that could be replicated across the country. As one New College alum tells Vanity Fair, “I weep for our nation if DeSantis wins a presidential bid.”
ILLUSTRATION BY KHOA TRAN. IMAGES FROM GETTY IMAGES.
It took New College president Patricia Okker three attempts to deliver her farewell remarks. She kept being interrupted during last week’s board meeting in Sarasota, Florida, including once by a member of the school’s board of trustees, making a motion to terminate her without cause. Okker had been addressing the dozens of students, faculty, and parents who’d come to defend her record—and the hundreds more outside who weren’t admitted—saying she was sorry to disappoint them, but she couldn’t represent the mandate New College was being given through this “hostile takeover.” And she refused to support the claims of right-wing critics that the school had been indoctrinating its students.
In the audience, supporters hugged one another and students left in tears. The trustees moved on, voting to replace Okker with interim president Richard Corcoran, Florida’s recently departed education commissioner who, in a 2021 speech at Michigan’s right-wing Hillsdale College, came close to calling for the collapse of the public school system through student attrition and said the political war “will be won in education.” The trustees replaced the board chair too, made plans to replace the general counsel, and instructed administrators to start preparing to dismantle the college’s diversity offices.
It was hard to imagine a starker change in leadership for New College, the small, nontraditional honors college of the Florida public university system, known for its lack of grades, individualized majors, and leftist student body, but which has also been eyed skeptically for years by Florida’s conservative-dominated legislature for its low enrollment and graduation rates. But that was exactly the transformation intended when Governor Ron DeSantis last month appointed six new trustees to the school’s 13-member board, in hopes they would remake New College into a right-leaning “classical college, more along the lines of a Hillsdale of the south,” as his education commissioner Manny Diaz put it.
After the Republican-controlled Board of Governors appointed a seventh trustee, the new majority represented a team uniquely qualified to carry out DeSantis’s scorched-earth, right-wing education wars. There was Manhattan Institute fellow and anti-critical race theory hype man Christopher Rufo, who has most recently turned his efforts to laying “siege” to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; one of Hillsdale’s graduate school deans, Matthew Spalding, who also helped lead Donald Trump’s short-lived 1776 Commission; Charles Kesler of the right-wing Claremont Institute, which spent the Trump years retconning an intellectual platform for the MAGA movement; a senior editor at a religious right magazine; the Catholic author of a book accused of “fram[ing] LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness”; and a private Christian school cofounder with a penchant for Covid disinformation.
Following his appointment, Rufo immediately began speaking in martial terms: that conservatives were “recapturing higher education,” mounting a “landing team” to survey the school as well as a “hostage rescue operation” to “liberate” it from “cultural hostage takers.” Another new trustee, the private Christian academy cofounder Jason“Eddie” Speir, started a Substack to chronicle the transformation, sparking further panic in late January with a post proposing the board declare a financial emergency, firing the entire staff and rehiring only those professors aligned with the school’s new business model. (Speir also used his newsletter to propose banningUSA Today affiliates from covering campus events over a reader comment suggesting people throw dog poop on the new trustees; to request the entire board be given his essay, “‘Florida, Where Woke Goes to Die’ What Does It Mean?” as “supporting material”; and to ask if any readers had a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order he could borrow.)
Students, faculty, and alumni from New College and far beyond decried the takeover as an attack on academic freedom with national implications. Multiple scholarly organizations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Historical Association, denounced it as “an orchestrated attack on academic integrity.” The University of Florida graduate assistants’ union tweeted a message of “Solidarity with New College students, faculty, and staff as DeSantis appoints a card-carrying fascist to the presidency.” At a campus rally preceding last Tuesday’s meeting, former Democratic state representative Carlos Guillermo Smith warned, “New College is their first test, their first trial run.” Repeating a Twitter hashtag protesting students had used, Smith added, “your campus is next.”
As though to prove them right, on February 1, Florida Republican state representative Spencer Roach—who cosponsored a recent Florida law mandating ideological surveys of public university campuses to “stem the tide of Marxist indoctrination”—tweeted that Okker’s termination should be replicated “at every university of the state.” In a January essay published in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Rufo touted the opportunities for emulation as well, writing that “If we are successful” in carrying out the mission of “institutional recapture,” what happens at New College “can serve as a model for other states.”
One horrified alum, Cayenne Linke, who attended New College in the 1990s, compared the takeover to a violent assault. “I feel like I’m standing at the precipice of the Fourth Reich, and I’m mostly powerless to fight back,” Linke said. “I weep for our nation if DeSantis wins a presidential bid and inevitably installs Rufo as education secretary.”
But that sort of lament has largely left the new trustees unmoved. When a current LGBTQ+ student told reporters about her grief, Rufo quoted her comments on Twitter, adding a laughing-crying emoji.
The invocation of Hillsdale College, a 1,500-student private Christian school in rural Michigan, might seem a surprising model for overhauling a public Florida institution, but it shouldn’t. The college, sometimes called “the citadel of conservatism,” has long had an outsized political influence in movement conservatism. Right-wing politicians and advocates vie for slots in its speaking program, the speeches of which are then distributed to a claimed audience of 6 million through a monthly Hillsdale publication. Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist who soughtto overturn the 2020 election, and who is married to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas,facilitated the launch of Hillsdale’s Capitol Hill campus in Washington. This magazine called Hillsdale a “feeder school” for the Trump administration.
Hillsdale has also spent the last 12 years proselytizing its Western civilization-focused model of “classical education” through a nationwide charter school-planting network, a bundle of freely-licensed right-wing K–12 curricula (including its ahistorical post-Trump “1776 Curriculum”), and its extensive connections with conservative state leaders. It’s largely thanks to Hillsdale that the idea of “classical education”—despite its varied forms and perspectives—has become right-wing shorthand for anti-“woke” American exceptionalism and an antidote to critical race theory. Last year, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee announced plans to open 50 Hillsdale charters across the state; the year before, Hillsdale president Larry Arnn, who is also the former president of the Claremont Institute, claimed that South Dakota governor Kristi Noem offered to build him an entire campus. (Noem’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
But in Florida, Hillsdale’s footprint is uniquely large. The state boasts the highest number of Hillsdale-affiliated K–12 publicly-funded charter schools, several launched or directed by spouses of prominent state Republicans, including Corcoran and Republican congressman Byron Donalds. Hillsdale was instrumental in helping DeSantis overhaul the state’s K–12 civics standards along more “patriotic” lines. Last year the state hired a Hillsdale duo—one staffer, one undergraduate—to assess whether math textbooks Florida teachers submitted for approval contained prohibited concepts like critical race theory. And a number of prominent Florida officials, including Corcoran and DeSantis himself, have addressed gatherings hosted by the college, where Arnn praised both men as among the most important people in America today.
Rufo has addressed Hillsdale audiences too: once in early 2021, where he laid out what quickly became Republican talking points about critical race theory, and again last spring, in a speech entitled “Laying Siege to the Institutions,” which he recently described as his “theory of action.” In the latter address, delivered while Rufo was teaching a journalism course for the college, he called on state legislators to use their budgetary power to reshape public institutions, including higher education.
“We have to get out of this idea that somehow a public university system is a totally independent entity that practices academic freedom—a total fraud, that’s just a false statement, fundamentally false—and that you can’t touch it or else you’re impinging on the rights of the gender studies department to follow their dreams,” he said. Instead, conservatives must have the guts to say, “‘What the public giveth, the public can taketh away.’ And so we get in there, we defund things we don’t like, we fund things we do like.”
In terms of the former, he elaborated, states should defund diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and find creative ways to undermine university departments perceived as too liberal, like changing state teacher accreditation laws as a means of rendering teachers colleges irrelevant. Both suggestions have become common conservative talking points over the last year. As The Chronicle of Higher Educationreported this week, South Carolina legislators have requested information from its state’s 33 public colleges and universities regarding training around race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, following similar moves in Florida and Oklahoma.
In terms of what the right does like, Rufo advised state legislators to fund the creation of new, independently-governed “conservative centers” within flagship public universities to attract conservative professors, create new academic tracks, and serve as a “separate patronage system” for the right.
“Some people don’t like thinking about it that way,” Rufo said. “But guess what? The public universities, the DEI departments, the public school bureaucracies are, at the end of the day, patronage systems for left-wing activists. And as long as there’s going to be a patronage system, wouldn’t it be good to have some people who are representing the public within them?”
In many ways, that’s an old idea. Big-money donors on the right like the Olin and Koch foundations have been establishing “beachhead” academic centers in universities across the country since the 1970s, as a means of shoring up academic arguments for right-wing policies, creating a pipeline of conservative talent, and endowing professorships for right-wing scholars—some of whom, more moderate academics suggest, are unemployable on their own merits. (Of possible note here: Corcoran’s appointment to New College follows his failed bid to become Florida State University’s president in 2021, when he was passed over, apparently, in part for lack of qualifications.)
But these days, the model has been adapted, so that funds for such programs and institutes are increasingly coming from state legislatures directly, as numerous red states have passed bills establishing new “classical” and “civics” institutes with barely-disguised agendas. In Arizona, the legislature effectively replaced private donations from the Koch foundations with taxpayer funds in order to create a new School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State, to address a claimed lack of ideological diversity. In Texas, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has sought to establish a free-market think tank at University of Texas Austin, partly as a response to critical race theory. In Tennessee, Governor Lee paired his proposal to create dozens of Hillsdale charters with a call to build a $6 million, Hillsdale-inspired civics institute at University of Tennessee Knoxville to combat “anti-American thought.”
Florida already has several, including a politics institute at Florida State; the Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom at Florida International University; and the University of Florida’s freshly-approved Hamilton Center for Classical and Civics Education, dedicated to “the ideas, traditions, and texts that form the foundations of western and American civilization,” and tasked with helping create anti-communist content for Florida’s new K–12 civics curricula.
Last spring, this track record prompted another Florida school, St. Augustine’s private Flagler College, to worry that it was being, well, groomed to become “the Hillsdale of the South.” The legislature was considering a multimillion dollar grant for the school to establish its own “Institute for Classical Education”—money that was certainly needed and might also be used to shore up existing programs, but which faculty feared would come with intolerable strings. Professors there brought a resolution to the faculty council, declaring that, if the funding came through, faculty would retain control over how it was used for hiring and curriculum creation. In Flagler’s case, the administration readily agreed.
But that sort of assurance—long considered a bedrock of academic freedom—is not a privilege shared at Florida’s public universities. And at New College, DeSantis’s new trustees made no effort to hide the fact that ideological transformation would bring rich financial rewards.
Several hours before last week’s New College board meeting, DeSantis affirmed as much, in a press conference announcing a suite of plans to reform higher education, including defunding all diversity programs at public universities and requiring them to instead teach a core curriculum focused on Western civilization, further eroding the protections of faculty tenure, bolstering University of Florida’s conservative institutes with even more funding and autonomy from university administrators, and transferring hiring authority from faculty committees to college presidents and the trustees who appoint them. In the same speech, DeSantis pledged an initial $15 million dollars to New College for immediate faculty recruitment and student scholarships, and an additional $10 million annually—money he suggested would not just attract the right sort of professors and students, but also new private donors.
“I can tell you this: you have people who are interested in donating money now, they want to endow professorships and all this stuff,” DeSantis said. “So it just shows you, if the mission is sound, people really respond to it.”
To New College’s distressed community, and academics more broadly, it suggested that the strategy for transforming the school was, effectively, cash. “A strategy that has worked, that it seems DeSantis may employ at New College, is to take a lot of money from very conservative outside donors, and flood the school with money for things that it’s hard to turn down,” like scholarships or restoring crumbling infrastructure, said Lauren O’Neill-Butler, a writer and New College alum who now teaches at New York’s Hunter College. “It often starts with a new center ‘to fund more classical education.’”
Indeed, last summer, after the Florida legislature approved the creation of University of Florida’s Hamilton Center, it received an additional, unsolicited $3 million donation from a previously unknown nonprofit, the Council on Public University Reform, which had no website or listed phone number and whose only contact was the director of a conservative Catholic legal institute currently pursuing a master’s degree at Hillsdale.
At Flagler College, civil rights history professor Michael Butler, who led the group of faculty skeptical about the implications of their own proposed classical institute last year, said that in recent days, every colleague he’s seen has stopped to share their fear and outrage over what’s happening at New College. For now, in the grim environment of Florida higher education, being a private school seems like an “oasis of intellectual freedom.” But it would be naive, he continued, to think that either private schools, or the rest of the country, will remain “immune from the ideological hysteria” consuming their state.
“It’s easy to ridicule Florida, or cite ‘Florida Man.’ But the Florida of today is the America of tomorrow,” Butler said, referencing a maxim from filmmaker Billy Corben. “If you put these culture wars into context, there’s always a bigger issue at play. This time, it’s 2024, and Florida is being used as a laboratory for policies and practices concerning higher education that will be unveiled at the national level.”
Indeed, over the weekend, an essay published on Revolver—a site launched by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie, who was fired by the White House in 2018 for appearing on a panel alongside the founder of the white nationalist website VDare— compared the takeover of New College to Napoleon’s swift defeat of the Austrian army in 1805, writing that DeSantis and Rufo were “putting on a masterclass” of the principle that “speed, surprise, and decisiveness matter far more than mere strength” in any battle.
“DeSantis’s conquest is clearly a test run, with lower stakes, executed against a small and obscure school with little institutional power to resist,” it read, with the author urging Republicans around the country to seize the momentum. “Every state in America is holding a legislative session this spring. Now presents a golden opportunity to grab as much territory on education as possible, while Florida leads the way … concerned citizens nationwide must quickly learn how to adapt the New College plan to other publicly-controlled universities across the country.” (The article did not include a byline, but was presumably written by Beattie.)
Education might traditionally be a winning Democratic issue, the author continued, “yet there is a very real sense that they are caught off-guard and being overtaken by the sheer speed of events,” as well as the confounding array of attacks on public education happening at once. The New College overthrow, after all, has happened simultaneously with the Florida Department of Education banning a new Advanced Placement high school African American studies course, with the seeming result that the College Board, which oversees AP curricula, immediately caved, stripping the course of content related to contemporary issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence, as well as numerous Black authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates and bell hooks. (This week, a letter from Florida’s Department of Education made clear that DeSantis’ administration had been in frequent contact with the College Board as it was creating the course last year, as the DOE requested that subjects like intersectionality and systemic marginalization be removed.)
“Universal vouchers, weakening tenure, core curricula, CRT bans, and more,” declared the Revolver piece, “it’s all hitting, all at once.” On Twitter, Rufo thanked Beattie for understanding the strategy at work, writing, “This is the best analysis of the New College takeover, by far.”
This week, South Dakota’s House of Representatives passed two bills, one targeting the teaching of “divisive concepts” and the other aimed at “protecting” kids from “political indoctrination.” While neither bill mentioned the words “critical race theory,” it was clear what they meant. They followed just a few weeks after the Mississippi Senate passed Senate Bill 2113—another “critical race theory” bill authored by Michael McLendon (R-Hernando)—over the objection of Black lawmakers, who walked out of the chamber in protest. Both of these efforts, along with many others, are part of a nationwide campaign led by conservatives to supposedly rid classrooms of “critical race theory”—a term for a high-level legal discipline that has been used as a cover to ban books by Black and brown authors.
While the obsession over “ critical race theory” is a new manifestation, it represents long-standing efforts to keep Black history—and the perspectives of Black writers—out of the classroom. For many conservatives, the attack on “critical race theory” is rooted in a desire to shield their children from the uncomfortable aspects of history and evade “sensitive” topics such as racism, white supremacy, and inequality. As this wave of anti-Blackness and anti-intellectualism grows, Black educators and their allies must be prepared to oppose these forces, building on a long tradition of Black protest.
For as long as white politicians have employed these tactics, Black educators in the United States have vigorously resisted. Through a myriad of strategies—including creative lesson plans and the production of anti-racist books and articles—Black educators have worked to counter the spread of misinformation and ensure that students have access to texts and perspectives that represent the diversity of the nation—and the world.
During the antebellum era, Black teachers in the North led the charge to ensure that Black students would receive a quality education—despite having limited access to resources. These efforts often required “conscious, vigorous, and sustained acts of defiance and protest,” as historian Kabria Baumgartner recounts in her groundbreaking book In Pursuit of Knowledge, but Black educators were willing to take such risks.
In 1830s Boston, for example, Susan Paul taught at a primary school for Black children where she intentionally included lessons on the evils of slavery and the significance of abolition. Paul brought her students to meetings of the New England Anti-Slavery Society—an interracial abolitionist organization founded in 1832. She also encouraged her students in the Boston Juvenile Choir to perform songs that extolled abolitionist ideas. Her inclusion of abolitionist materials and her focus on her students’ public comportment represented a direct challenge to the era’s racist propaganda on the capabilities and qualities of Black people—a mission she followed even as she faced threats of violence from white Bostonians at the time.
Paul published the Memoir of James Jackson in 1835 to honor a student of hers who had passed away from tuberculosis. In telling the story of Jackson’s short life, the book also revealed Paul’s pedagogical emphasis on Christian empathy as an opposing force to racial prejudice.
Similarly, Charlotte Forten, a Black educator from Philadelphia, passionately resisted the spread of miseducation in the classroom—and introduced an array of diverse materials to broaden her students’ perspectives. One of the first Black women teachers to be hired to teach in the integrated schools of Salem, Mass., Forten joined the staff of the Epes Grammar School in 1856. Though she only taught in Salem for a few years, she was unwavering in her commitment to nurturing Black students, and in 1862, traveled to the Sea Islands in South Carolina to teach Black children who were recently emancipated by Union forces.
Forten used this opportunity to instruct her students about the life of revolutionary Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. “I told them about Toussaint,” she explained in an 1864 Atlantic Monthly article, “thinking it well they should know what one of their own color had done for his race.” This determination to center Black perspectives in the classroom as a counter to stereotypical representations of mainstream accounts guided Black educators in the decades to follow.
In February 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson, known as the father of Black history, devised a strategy to address the failure to teach Black history in classrooms across the nation. By first establishing “ Negro History Week,” Woodson provided an avenue for educators to recognize and celebrate the history of people of African descent in the United States. In so doing, he disrupted educational norms shaped by white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Woodson and members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History—the organization he had established several years earlier—created and distributed books, lesson plans, and other curriculum materials to aid teachers across the nation.
It is in this spirit that the famed scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America in 1935. The pioneering book, which would go on to shape future writing and research on Reconstruction, was a direct refutation of the false narratives emerging from leading white scholars. Black Reconstruction in America unequivocally challenged the racist Dunning School of historians—named after William Archibald Dunning of Columbia University. In their portrayal of Reconstruction (1865–77), the Dunning School scholars, as Du Bois explained, had portrayed the South as victims and the North as having committed a “grievous wrong.” Their writings on the subject treated the free and enslaved Black population with “ ridicule, contempt or silence.”
This framing of the ideals motivating Reconstruction—and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—as a mistake was further propagated in popular media, most notably in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction offered an important counterargument that not only reaffirmed the evils of slavery but also demonstrated the active role enslaved people took in liberating themselves. They were, as Du Bois powerfully demonstrated, not simply the passive recipients of white actions but agents in shaping their own destiny.
This tradition coalesced into the dynamic field of Black Studies during the 1960s and 1970s. As Abdul Alkalimat, one of the founders of Black Studies, points out in The History of Black Studies, the field’s growth is directly tied to the pioneering work of scholars like Woodson and Du Bois. The work of Black educators—combined with other forces, including the civil rights and Black Power movements as well as the vital intellectual space created by historically black colleges and universities—provided the catalyst for the establishment of Black Studies programs and departments.
Freedom Schools, such as those established by organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the rise of Black Power ideology, fundamentally shaped Black college students and challenged mainstream (anti-Black) university curriculums on college campuses and beyond.
Today, we are witnessing an effort to return to an era when Black voices and experiences—along with those of other marginalized groups—were excluded from classrooms. The recent legislative and executive bans on “critical race theory” are designed to intimidate teachers and school districts from teaching accurate representations of American history. As the historical record reminds us, these attempts are not new. But we can draw inspiration from the long line of Black educators and their allies who vigorously worked to overcome these forces in the past.
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a 2022 National Fellow at New America. Along with Ibram X. Kendi, she is the editor of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619–2019. Her latest book is Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America. Twitter: @KeishaBlain
SCHOOL DESEGREGATION AND THE PIPELINE OF PRIVILEGE
The struggle to end racial segregation in America’s public schools has been long and arduous. It was ostensibly won in the 1954 Brown v. Tulsa Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. But racist resistance has been intense. Years later, extensive school segregation remains for Black children. The High Court has essentially overturned Brown without explicitly saying so. This paper assesses the effects of educational desegregation that has managed to occur. Discussion concerning the results of desegregation has revolved around test scores and the difficulties involved with “busing,” but the principal positive effect is often overlooked: namely, that the substantial rise of the Black-American middle class in the last half-century has been importantly enhanced by school desegregation. This paper reviews the educational backgrounds of eighteen Black Americans who have risen to the highest status positions in American politics and business in recent decades. They represent the desegregated Black cohort who succeeded because desegregation enabled them to break into the nation’s deeply established pipeline of privilege.
BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RACIAL DESEGREGATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS
White supremacists over the past six decades have managed to roll back the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown ruling outlawing racially segregated schools. Black American children in the nation’s public schools are today virtually as segregated as they were prior to Brown.1
In 1955, the High Court undercut its historic desegregation ruling with a vague “all deliberate speed” order. The White South, quite deliberate but rarely speedy, viewed this order as a sign of weakness. This second decision had the unfortunate, if unintended, consequence of heightening opposition to the original decision. Resistance groups called White Citizens’ Councils—basically middle-class Ku Klux Klans—sprang up throughout the South.
Consequently, scant progress was made for a decade. In response to this delay, three strong Federal Court rulings emerged. In 1968, Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, Virginia struck down a so-called “freedom of choice” attempt to avoid desegregation. In 1971, the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision established that desegregation required affirmative action—including the “busing” of students throughout Charlotte’s metropolitan area. In 1973, Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, Colorado applied the Swann ruling to a non-Southern city for the first time.
In reaction to this progress, strong resistance to school integration developed—led by President Richard Nixon, who sternly opposed the “busing” needed to achieve it. This opposition gathered strength as it seized on the claim of massive “White flight” from cities to avoid desegregation. Bolstered by the publicized assertions of sociologist James Coleman, conservative judges began to use it as an excuse to roll back desegregation orders (Orfield and Eaton, 1996).
The “White flight” argument ignored two key points. First, the Coleman analysis was seriously flawed. While White families did move to the suburbs and private schools more during the first year of integration, it was basically a “hastening up” effect. That is, large urban districts that started school desegregation did not lose significantly more White students over the critical 1967–1976 period than did districts that remained racially segregated. Phrased differently, desegregating districts were already losing White families before the process and after a few years would have lost just as many White families without any desegregation whatsoever (Farley et al., 1980).
Second, the “White flight” phenomenon was especially acute in huge cities such as Detroit, MI where the High Court flatly rejected metropolitan plans for school desegregation in Milliken v. Bradley (1974; Pettigrew 2004). But in smaller cities, such as Richmond, VA,2 Lexington, KY, and Wilmington, DE, metropolitan plans were far more feasible.
The eighteen cases reviewed in this paper were obviously not picked at random. They represent the very top echelon of Black participation in government and business: all three Black Americans at the presidential and vice-presidential level; all three Black members of the U.S. Senate; all eleven Black CEOs of major companies; and a foremost television newscaster. Arguably, these are eighteen of the most influential and powerful Black leaders in America today. Only one—Senator Warnock—seems not to have benefitted importantly from early entry into the White-dominated pipeline of privilege.
Too much focus has been given to the micro-effects of school desegregation (e.g., changes in test scores and racial attitudes), while ignoring the later-life constructive meso- and macro-societal effects of the process. The extensive 2011 NBER study previously described found that desegregated schools led not only to improved test scores but also to higher annual earnings and better health as adults (Johnson 2011). And Johnson’s (2012) follow-up research found these positive outcomes of desegregated schools even extended to the next generation of Black pupils. This present paper extends these positive outcomes of desegregated education still further to include the possibility of talented Black Americans cracking into the nation’s pipeline of privilege.
We can hope for two interrelated future trends: many more Black Americans able to join in the nation’s pipeline of privilege and the pipeline itself becoming less necessary for Black success. As the Black American middle-class expands, we will witness more examples like Senator Warnock rising to prominence without having benefitted from the largely-White structures of access to privilege.
As the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized, historical consciousness is replaced by manufactured forms of historical amnesia and ignorance. As white supremacy becomes entrenched at the highest levels of power and in the public imagination, the past becomes a burden that must be shed. Disparaging, suppressing or forgetting the horrors of history has become a valued and legitimating form of political and symbolic capital, especially among the Republican Party and conservative media. Not only have history’s civic lessons been forgotten, but historical memory is also being rewritten, especially in the ideology of Trumpism, through an affirmation of the legacy of slavery, the racist history of the Confederacy, American exceptionalism, and the mainstreaming of an updated form of fascist politics.
Theodor Adorno’s insights on historical memory are more relevant than ever. He once argued that as much as repressive governments would like to break free from the past, especially the legacy of fascism, “it is still very much alive.” Moreover, there is a price to be paid with “the destruction of memory.” In this case, “the murdered are …cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” Adorno’s warning rings particularly true at a time when two-thirds of young American youth are so impoverished in their historical knowledge that they are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. On top of this shocking level of ignorance is the fact that “more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust.” Historical amnesia takes a particularly dangerous turn in this case, and prompts the question of how young people and adults can you even recognize fascism if they have no recollection or knowledge of its historical legacy.
The genocide inflicted on Native Americans, slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the rise of the carceral state, the My Lai massacre, torture chambers, black sites, among other historical events now disappear into a disavowal of past events made even more unethical with the emergence of a right-wing political language and culture. The Republican Party’s attack on critical race theory in the schools which they label as “ideological or faddish” both denies the history of racism as well as the way in which it is enforced through policy, laws, and institutions. For many republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persist in American society. For instance, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” In this updated version of racial cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated to a form of racial hatred leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn, and confront in the public imagination the history and persistence of racism in American society
Bolstered by a former president and a slew of Vichy-type politicians, right-wing ideologues, intellectuals, and media pundits deny and erase events from a fascist past that shed light on emerging right-wing, neo-Nazi, and extremist policies, ideas, and symbols. As Coco Das points out given that 73 million people voted to re-elect Trump, it is clear that Americans “have a Nazi problem.” This was also evident in the words and actions of former president Trump who defended Confederate monuments and their noxious past, the waving of Confederate flags and the display of Nazi images during the attempted coup on the Capital on January 6th, and ongoing attempts by the Republican Party legislators to engage in expansive efforts at enabling a minority government. America’s Nazi problem is also visible in the growing acts of domestic terrorism aimed at Asians, undocumented immigrants, and people of color.
Historical amnesia also finds expression in the right-wing press and among media pundits such as Fox News commentators Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, whose addiction to lying exceeds the boundaries of reason and creates an echo chamber of misinformation that normalizes the unspeakable, if not the unthinkable. Rational responses now give way to emotional reactions fueled by lies whose power is expanded through their endless repetition. How else to explain the baseless claim made by them, along with a number of Republican lawmakers, right-wing pundits, and Trump’s supporters who baselessly lay the blame for the storming of the US Capitol on “Antifa.” These lies were circulated despite of the fact that “subsequent arrests and investigations have found no evidence that people who identify with Antifa, a loose collective of antifascist activists, were involved in the insurrection.”
In this case, I think it is fair to re-examine Theodor W. Adorno’s claim that “Propaganda actually constitutes the substance of politics” and that the right-wing embrace of and production of an endless stream of lies and denigration of the truth are not merely delusional but are endemic to a fascist cult that does not answer to reason, but only to power while legitimizing a past in which white nationalism and racial cleansing become the organizing principles of social order and governance.
In the era of post-truth, right-wing disimagination machines are not only hostile to those who assert facts and evidence, but also supportive of a mix of lethal ignorance and the scourge of civic illiteracy. The latter requires no effort to assess the truth and erases everything necessary for the life of a robust democracy. The pedagogical workstations of depoliticization have reached new and dangerous levels amid emerging right-wing populisms. It is not surprising that we live at a time when politics is largely disconnected from echoes of the past and justified on the grounds that direct comparisons are not viable, as if only direct comparisons can offer insights into the lessons to be learned from the past. We have entered an age in which thoughtful reasoning, informed judgments, and critical thought are under attack. This is a historical moment that resembles a dictatorship of ignorance, which Joshua Sperling rightly argues entails:
The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.
It is clear is that we live in a historical period in which the conditions that produced white supremacist politics are intensifying once again. How else to explain former President Trump’s use of the term “America First,” his labeling immigrants as vermin, his call to “Make America Great Again” — signaling his white nationalist ideology–his labeling of the press as “enemies of the people,” and his numerous incitements to violence while addressing his followers. Moreover, Trump’s bid for patriotic education and his attack on the New York Times’s 1619 Project served as both an overt expression of his racism and his alignment with right-wing white supremacists and neo-Nazi mobs. Historical amnesia has become racialized. In the rewriting of history in the age of Trump, the larger legacy of “colonial violence and the violence of slavery inflicted on Africans” are resurrected as a badge of honor.
America’s long history of fascist ideologies and the racist actions of a slave state, the racial cleansing espoused by the Ku Klux Klan, and an historical era that constitutes what Alberto Toscano calls “the long shadow of racial fascism” in America are no longer forgotten or repressed but celebrated in the Age of Trump. What is to be made of a former President who awarded the prestigious Medal of Freedom to a blubbering white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, conspiracy theorist, and virulent racist who labeled feminists as “Feminazis.” In this case, one of the nation’s highest honors went to a man who took pride in relentlessly disparaging Muslims, referred to undocumented immigrants as “an invading force” and an “invasive species,” demonized people of color, and recycled Nazi tropes about racial purity while celebrating the mob that attacked the Capitol as “Revolutionary War era rebels and patriots.” Under the banner of Trumpism, those individuals who reproduce the rhetoric of political and social death have become, celebrated symbols of a fascist politics that feeds off the destruction of the collective public and civic imagination.
William Faulkner once stated “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In its updated version, we live not only with the ghosts of genocide and slavery, but also with the ghosts of fascism—we live in the shadow of the genocidal history of indigenous inhabitants, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and systemic police violence against people of color. And while we live with the ghosts of our past, we have failed to fully confront its implications for the present and future. To do so would mean recognizing that updated forms of fascist politics in the current moment are not a rupture from the past, but an evolution. White supremacy now rules the Republican Party and one of its tools of oppression is the militarization and weaponization of history. Fascism begins with language and the suppression of dissent, while both suppressing and rewriting history in the service of power and violence.
In the age of neoliberal tyranny, historical amnesia is the foundation for manufactured ignorance, the subversion of consciousness, the depoliticization of the public, and the death of democracy. It is part of a disimagination machine that is perpetuated in schools, higher education, and the corporate controlled media. It divorces justice from politics and aligns the public imagination with a culture of hatred and bigotry. Historical amnesia destroys the grammar of ethical responsibility and the critical habits of citizenship. The ghost of fascism is with us once again as society forgets its civic lessons, destroys civic culture, and produces a populace that is increasingly infantilized politically through the ideological dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. The suppression of history opens the door to fascism. This is truly a lesson that must be learned if the horrors of the past are not to be repeated again. Fortunately, the history of racism is being exposed once again in the protests that are taking place all over the globe. What needs to be remembered is that such struggles must make education central to politics, and historical memory a living force for change. Historical memory must become a crucial element in the struggle for collective resistance, while transforming ideas into instruments of power.
 Paul Street, “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial: 26 Flavors of Anti-Antifascism, Part 1,” Counter Punch. (Feb 7, 2021).Online https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/07/the-anatomy-of-fascism-denial/; Sarah Churchwell, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Again,” The New York Review of Books, [May 26, 2020].Online https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/06/22/american-fascism-it-has-happened-here/; Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020); Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, [Random House, 2018); Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (San Francisco: City Lights 2018); Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (New York: Routledge, 2018); Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Crown, 2017)
 Adorno, Theodor W., “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Guilt and Defense, trans. Henry W. Pickford, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 215.
 See, for instance, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds. Four Hundred Souls (New York: One World, 2021) and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown, 2016).
 On the American origins of fascism, also see Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018). Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism(San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2018).
The inspiration to bring out a new edition of Cedric Robinson’s classic, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, came from the estimated 26 million people who took to the streets during the spring and summer of 2020 to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others who lost their lives to the police. During this time, the world bore witness to the Black radical tradition in motion, driving what was arguably the most dynamic mass rebellion against state-sanctioned violence and racial capitalism we have seen in North America since the 1960s—maybe the 1860s. The boldest activists demanded that we abolish police and prisons and shift the resources funding police and prisons to housing, universal healthcare, living-wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. These new abolitionists are not interested in making capitalism fairer, safer, and less racist—they know this is impossible. They want to bring an end to “racial capitalism.”
The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.
The state’s reaction to these protests has also brought us to the precipice of fascism. The organized protests in the streets and places of public assembly, on campuses, inside prisons, in state houses and courtrooms and police stations, portended the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past several years, the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations warned the country that we were headed for a fascist state if we did not end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of Black and brown people. They issued these warnings before Trump’s election. As the protests waned and COVID-19 entered a second, deadlier wave, the fascist threat grew right before our eyes. We’ve seen armed white militias gun down protesters; Trump and his acolytes attempt to hold on to power despite losing the presidential election; the federal government deploy armed force to suppress dissent, round up and deport undocumented workers, and intimidate the public; and, most recently the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by members of the alt-right, racists, Neo-Nazis, and assorted fascist gangs whose ranks included off-duty cops, active military members, and veterans. The threat of fascism is no longer rhetorical, a hollow epithet. It is real.
The crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet is precisely the space where Cedric’s main interlocutors find the Black radical tradition. Black Marxism is, in part, about an earlier generation of Black antifascists, written at the dawn of a global right-wing, neoliberal order that one political theorist called the era of “friendly fascism.”
Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism. The Black radical tradition defies racial capitalism’s efforts to generate new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture.
What did Robinson mean by the Black radical tradition, and why is it relevant now? Contrary to popular belief, Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism. Robinson takes Marx and Engels to task for underestimating the material force of racial ideology on proletarian consciousness, and for conflating the English working class with the workers of the world. In his preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, Cedric wrote, “Marxism’s internationalism was not global; its materialism was exposed as an insufficient explanator of cultural and social forces; and its economic determinism too often politically compromised freedom struggles beyond or outside of the metropole.” It is a damning observation. Many would counter by pointing to Marx’s writings on India, the United States, Russia, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and peasants. Others would argue that Marx himself only ever claimed to understand capitalist development in Western Europe. But because neither Marx nor Engels considered the colonies and their plantations central to modern capitalist processes, class struggles within the slave regime or peasant rebellions within the colonial order were ignored or dismissed as underdeveloped or peripheral—especially since they looked nothing like the secular radical humanism of 1848 or 1789.
Cedric’s point is that Marx and Engels missed the significance of revolt in the rest of the world, specifically by non-Western peoples who made up the vast majority of the world’s unfree and nonindustrial labor force. Unfree laborers in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the islands of the sea were producing the lion’s share of surplus value for a world system of racial capitalism, but the ideological source of their revolts was not the mode of production. Africans kidnapped and drawn into this system were ripped from “superstructures” with radically different beliefs, moralities, cosmologies, metaphysics, and intellectual traditions. Robinson observes,
Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or decultured blanks—men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
With this observation Robinson unveils the secret history of the Black radical tradition, which he describes as “a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people.” The Black radical tradition defies racial capitalism’s efforts to remake African social life and generate new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture. Robinson traces the roots of Black radical thought to a shared epistemology among diverse African people, arguing that the first waves of African New World revolts were governed not by a critique rooted in Western conceptions of freedom but by a total rejection of enslavement and racism as it was experienced. Behind these revolts were not charismatic men but, more often than not, women. In fact, the female and queer-led horizontal formations that are currently at the forefront of resisting state violence and racial capitalism are more in line with the Black radical tradition than traditional civil rights organizations.
Africans chose flight and marronage because they were not interested in transforming Western society but in finding a way “home,” even if it meant death. Yet, the advent of formal colonialism and the incorporation of Black labor into a fully governed social structure produced the “native bourgeoisie,” the Black intellectuals whose positions within the political, educational, and bureaucratic structures of the dominant racial and colonial order gave them greater access to European life and thought. Their contradictory role as descendants of the enslaved, victims of racial domination, and tools of empire compelled some of these men and women to rebel, thus producing the radical Black intelligentsia. This intelligentsia occupies the last section of Black Marxism. Robinson reveals how W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright, by confronting Black mass movements, revised Western Marxism or broke with it altogether. The way they came to the Black radical tradition was more an act of recognition than of invention; they divined a theory of Black radicalism through what they found in the movements of the Black masses.
The final section has also been a source of confusion and misapprehension. Black Marxism is not a book about “Black Marxists” or the ways in which Black intellectuals “improved” Marxism by attending to race. This is a fundamental misunderstanding that has led even the most sympathetic readers to treat the Black radical tradition as a checklist of our favorite Black radical intellectuals. Isn’t Frantz Fanon part of the Black radical tradition? What about Claudia Jones? Why not Walter Rodney? Where are the African Marxists? Of course Cedric would agree that these and other figures were products of, and contributors to, the Black radical tradition. As he humbly closed his preface to the 2000 edition, “It was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there.”
Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt to construct a wholly original theory of revolution.
The Black radical tradition is not a greatest hits list. Cedric was clear that the Black intellectuals at the center of this work were not the Black radical tradition, nor did they stand outside it—through praxis they discovered it. Or, better yet, they were overtaken by it. And, as far as Cedric was concerned, sometimes the Black intellectuals about whom he writes fell short. Marxism was their path toward discovery, but apprehending the Black radical tradition required a break with Marx and Engels’s historical materialism.
Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt—and to Black radical intellectuals who also turned to the history of Black revolt—to construct a wholly original theory of revolution and interpretation of the history of the modern world.
When the London-based Zed Press published Black Marxism in 1983, few could have predicted the impact it would have on political theory, political economy, historical analysis, Black studies, Marxist studies, and our broader understanding of the rise of the modern world. It appeared with little fanfare. For years it was treated as a curiosity, grossly misunderstood or simply ignored. Given its current “rebirth,” some may argue that Black Marxism was simply ahead of its time. Or, to paraphrase the sociologist George Lipsitz quoting the late activist Ivory Perry, perhaps Cedric was on time but the rest of us are late? Indeed, how we determine where we are depends on our conception of time.
In thinking of the Black radical tradition as generative rather than prefigurative, not only is the future uncertain, but the road is constantly changing.
Cedric took Marx’s historical materialism to task in part for its conception of time and temporality. From The Terms of Order to An Anthropology of Marxism, he consistently critiqued Marxism for its fidelity to a stadial view of history and linear time or teleology, and dismissed the belief that revolts occur at certain stages or only when the objective conditions are “ripe.” And yet there was something in Cedric—perhaps his grandfather’s notion of faith—that related to some utopian elements of Marxism, notably the commitment to eschatological time, or the idea of “end times” rooted in earlier Christian notions of prophecy. Anyone who has read the Communist Manifesto or sang “The Internationale” will recognize the promise of proletarian victory and a socialist future. On the one hand, Robinson considered the absence of “the promise of a certain future” a unique feature of Black radicalism. “Only when that radicalism is costumed or achieves an envelope in Black Christianity,” he explained in a 2012 lecture, “is there a certainty to it. Otherwise it is about a kind of resistance that does not promise triumph or victory at the end, only liberation. No nice package at the end, only that you would be free. . . . Only the promise of liberation, only the promise of liberation!”
“Only the promise of liberation” captures the essence of Black revolt and introduces a completely different temporality: blues time. Blues time eschews any reassurance that the path to liberation is preordained. Blues time is flexible and improvisatory; it is simultaneously in the moment, the past, the future, and the timeless space of the imagination. As the geographer Clyde Woods taught us, the blues is not a lament but a clear-eyed way of knowing and revealing the world that recognizes the tragedy and humor in everyday life, as well as the capacity of people to survive, think, and resist in the face of adversity. Blues time resembles what the anarchist theorist Uri Gordon calls a “generative temporality,” a temporality that treats the future itself as indeterminate and full of contingencies. In thinking of the Black radical tradition as generative rather than prefigurative, not only is the future uncertain, but the road is constantly changing, along with new social relations that require new visions and expose new contradictions and challenges.
Cedric reminded us repeatedly that the forces we face are not as strong as we think. They are held together by guns, tanks, and fictions. They can be disassembled.
What we are witnessing now, across the country and around the world, is a struggle to interrupt historical processes leading to catastrophe. These struggles are not doomed, nor are they guaranteed. Thanks in no small measure to this book, we fight with greater clarity, with a more expansive conception of the task before us, and with ever more questions. Cedric reminded us repeatedly that the forces we face are not as strong as we think. They are held together by guns, tanks, and fictions. They can be disassembled, though that is easier said than done. In the meantime, we need to be prepared to fight for our collective lives.
The Confederacy was a con job on whites. And still is.
By Frank Hyman
UPDATED MARCH 11, 2021 10:28 AM
I’ve lived 55 years in the South, and I grew up liking the Confederate flag. I haven’t flown one for many decades, but for a reason that might surprise you.
I know the South well. We lived wherever the Marine Corps stationed my father: Georgia, Virginia, the Carolinas. As a child, my favorite uncle wasn’t in the military, but he did pack a .45 caliber Thompson submachine gun in his trunk. He was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. Despite my role models, as a kid I was an inept racist. I got in trouble once in the first grade for calling a classmate the N-word. But he was Hispanic.
As I grew up and acquired the strange sensation called empathy (strange for boys anyway), I learned that for black folks the flutter of that flag felt like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And for the most prideful flag waivers, clearly that response was the point. I mean, come on. It’s a battle flag.
What the flag symbolizes for blacks is enough reason to take it down. But there’s another reason that white southerners shouldn’t fly it. Or sport it on our state-issued license plates as some do here in North Carolina. The Confederacy – and the slavery that spawned it – was also one big con job on the Southern, white, working class. A con job funded by some of the ante-bellum one-per-centers, that continues today in a similar form.
You don’t have to be an economist to see that forcing blacks – a third of the South’s laborers – to work without pay drove down wages for everyone else. And not just in agriculture. A quarter of enslaved blacks worked in the construction, manufacturing and lumbering trades; cutting wages even for skilled white workers.
Flag Protester Talks About White Role
James Tyson was arrested with Bree Newsome in SC Confederate flag removal. BY MCCLATCHY
Thanks to the profitability of this no-wage/low-wage combination, a majority of American one-per-centers were southerners. Slavery made southern states the richest in the country. The South was richer than any other country except England. But that vast wealth was invisible outside the plantation ballrooms. With low wages and few schools, southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than northern whites.
My ancestor Canna Hyman and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”
Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing that blacks had no slice at all.
How did the plantation owners mislead so many Southern whites?
They managed this con job partly with a propaganda technique that will be familiar to modern Americans, but hasn’t received the coverage it deserves in our sesquicentennial celebrations. Starting in the 1840s wealthy Southerners supported more than 30 regional pro-slavery magazines, many pamphlets, newspapers and novels that falsely touted slave ownership as having benefits that would – in today’s lingo – trickle down to benefit non-slave owning whites and even blacks. The flip side of the coin of this old-is-new trickle-down propaganda is the mistaken notion that any gain by blacks in wages, schools or health care comes at the expense of the white working class.
Today’s version of this con job no longer supports slavery, but still works in the South and thrives in pro trickle-down think tanks, magazines, newspapers, talk radio and TV news shows such as the Cato Foundation, Reason magazine, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. These sources are underwritten by pro trickle-down one-per-centers like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.
For example, a map of states that didn’t expand Medicaid – which would actually be a boon mostly to poor whites – resembles a map of the old Confederacy with a few other poor, rural states thrown in. Another indication that this divisive propaganda works on Southern whites came in 2012. Romney and Obama evenly split the white working class in the West, Midwest and Northeast. But in the South we went 2-1 for Romney.
Lowering the flag because of the harm done to blacks is the right thing to do. We also need to lower it because it symbolizes material harm the ideology of the Confederacy did to Southern whites that lasts even to this day.
One can love the South without flying the battle flag. But it won’t help to get rid of an old symbol if we can’t also rid ourselves of the self-destructive beliefs that go with it. Only by shedding those too, will Southern whites finally catch up to the rest of the country in wages, health and education.
Frank Hyman lives in Durham,where he has held two local elected offices. He’s a carpenter and stonemason and policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback. This essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission.
This could also be titled, “How Imminent Domain was used as a tool to steal Black land ownership”.
In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a plot of land on the Southern California coast.
It was an oceanside lot in an area dotted with sunny blossoms of evening primrose and purple clusters of lupine. The land, made accessible by red trolley cars that trundled to and from the growing metropolis of Los Angeles, was ripe for development.
The Bruces and their son, Harvey, came from New Mexico and were among the first Black people to settle in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach. They built a resort where other Black families could swim, lounge, eat and dance without being subject to racist harassment.
The harassment came anyway, and the resort thrived despite it. But city officials shuttered the enterprise by condemning the land in 1924, claiming to need it for a public park. The Bruces fought the move through litigation, but failed. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.
Nearly a century later, their descendants are still seeking restitution.
“I just want justice for my family,” said Anthony Bruce, 38, a descendant of the Bruces who lives in Florida and has childhood memories of visiting the California land his relatives once owned.
“It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally,” said Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, a relative of the Bruces who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.
“What we want is restoration of our land to us,” he said, “and restitution for the loss of revenues.”
While the city is not seriously considering the possibility of monetary restitution — officials have said public funds cannot legally be used to pay such claims — property restoration is now on the table. Last week, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said she was open to returning the land to the family, ABC7 Eyewitness News reported. The land has been owned by the county since the 1990s and is now the site of a training center for lifeguards.
“This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property,” Ms. Hahn said in an emailed statement. She added, “I want the county to be part of righting this wrong.”
Both Mr. Bruce and Mr. Shepard said that restitution was about more just than their family. They pointed to the long history of racism in the United States, and to stories of Black people being robbed of their land or the fruits of their labor.
“We’ve been stripped of any type of legacy, and we’re not the only family that this has happened to,” Mr. Shepard said. “It’s happened all over the United States.”
Manhattan Beach has been reckoning with the story of the Bruces’ shuttered resort for years. A park there was renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in 2007, and the city erected a plaque to tell the family’s story.
But the plaque credits a white landowner, George Peck, with making it possible for the Bruce family to settle there. It omits reports of Mr. Peck’s attempts to obstruct Black beachgoers’ paths to the shore.
“We definitely need to change the plaque,” said Kavon Ward, 39, an organizer and resident of Manhattan Beach. “But that’s not going far enough for me. We need to figure out how to get this land back to the family it was stolen from.”
“I started thinking about the generational wealth that was stripped from that family,” she said. “It happened everywhere around this nation. We keep getting up, but why do we have to keep getting kicked down? Why? For me, it was time for reparations.”
“Many people only think about African-American civil rights through economic and political power,” Dr. Jefferson said. “They sometimes forget about the fact that recreation was a big part of the struggle.”
When Willa and Charles Bruce first opened their property to visitors in 1912, it had a small stand that sold food and fizzy drinks. By 1923, the property had a lodge and a beachside cafe, with space upstairs for dancing. Mr. Bruce was often out of town, working as a dining car chef on trains to Salt Lake City. It was Ms. Bruce who bought the property and handled much of the business at the resort.
“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Ms. Bruce told The Los Angeles Times in 1912. “But I own this land and I am going to keep it.”
The Bruces made their investment in the era of Jim Crow, amid a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities across the United States and campaigns of white supremacist terror and lynchings that drove millions of African-Americans away from the South. There was less violence against Black people in California at the time, but discrimination was rampant.
Still, the resort at Bruce’s Beach appeared to prosper. Black-and-white photographs from the era captured beachgoers wearing bathing suits and bright smiles, couples lounging in the shade and families playing in the surf.
In time, a small community of Black landowners bloomed around the resort. According to Dr. Jefferson’s book, these included George Prioleau, a formerly enslaved retired Army major whose family developed a duplex along the shore; Mary Sanders, a caterer from Canada who was known as a skilled entrepreneur; and John and Bessie McCaskill, who hosted elaborate beachside breakfasts.
But some white neighbors and city officials were intent on dismantling the community. Black visitors to the beach endured harassment, slashed tires and arbitrary regulations. The California Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper, reported that the Ku Klux Klan was active along the California shoreline during the 1920s.
And in 1924, the city condemned the Bruces’ property, claiming eminent domain in order to use the land as a park. The couple, both of whom were in their 60s, eventually moved to Los Angeles.
The land they left behind would not be developed as a public park for more than three decades.
Tourists continued to visit Bruce’s Beach after the resort was shuttered. So did members of the N.A.A.C.P., who participated in a “swim-in” to assert their right to the sea in 1927, according to Dr. Jefferson’s book. Several Black beachgoers were arrested that year.
As the decades passed, Manhattan Beach grew to become an affluent city of about 35,000 people, a vast majority of whom are white. According to 2010 census data, less than 1 percent of the population is Black.
In October, Manhattan Beach convened a task force of 13 residents to come up with recommendations for the city to right historical wrongs. Next week, the City Council will meet to discuss those recommendations, which include changing the plaque, erecting an art installation and issuing an apology.
“That’s fine,” Ms. Ward said. “But there are things they could address if they were thinking creatively — if there really was a will to become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place.” She suggested that officials consider forward-looking measures like a commitment to affordable housing.
At the county level, officials are expected to meet with Bruce family descendants next week to discuss handing over the property, which could also involve monetary restitution or an agreement to lease the land from the family.
But Mr. Shepard said the city that condemned the land should be the one to make amends.
Los Angeles County “is talking about restoring the land to us,” he said. “But the restitution and punitive damages, Manhattan Beach is going to have to pay. We’re going to keep up with them until we get it.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
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