telluride lessons 3: what i learned about the black struggle for freedom
This is the last post in my series about what I learned from teaching an intensive six week seminar for really, really, really ridiculously gifted and talented high school students. Here, I’ll describe the actual content of the course and what I learned from teaching it.
Content: The course had two goals. The first was to examine the different stages of Black civil rights from colonial times to the present. It included examining both arguments for and against slavery and segregation. Thus, we worked through examples from abolitionism, the Reconstruction era, desegregation/classic civil rights, Black Power, and contemporary America. Second, we insisted on an interdisciplinary approach. So we read fiction, essays, and scholarly work. We also viewed films and documentaries.
Take away #1: In my reading, the big issue post-Civil War was enforcement of rights. In reading after reading from Civil Rights era authors (going back to Plessy and before), the central issue was the massive gap between having political rights and having them enforced. For example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 didn’t actually introduce any new legal principles or rights into the American state, except perhaps to extend legal equality from state institutions (e.g., voting) to some areas of civil society (e.g., housing). But it didn’t really change the doctrinal terrain very much from what was enshrined in the 1st section of the 14th amendment.
What it did do was create a series of mechanisms for enforcing rights that were completely new, such as the EEOC. Once you realize this, then a lot of federal level domestic politics post-1970 makes sense. The goal of anti-Black politics, then, is to attack the various state mechanisms that exist for enforcing Black rights, whether they be in employment (slashing the EEOC budgets), voting (e.g., voter ID laws/felon disenfranchisement laws), or equality in the judicial process (e.g., not punishing police abuse, mass incarceration).
As a corollary, this also reinforces my long standing critique of conservative politics, which is that it really isn’t about small government at all. Rather, conservatives often use libertarian rhetoric to selectively criticize programs they don’t like while remaining silent on expansions of the state that they like. I strongly do not believe that conservativism is an ideology of racism, but in the post-Civil Rights era, it was way too easy to resist racial equality under the guise of resistance to state expansion.
Take away #2: The Civil Rights movement is a much deeper phenomenon than I had previously appreciated. A very long time ago, I had abandoned the view that the Civil Rights movement popped up in the 1940s and reached its peak in the 1960s. I knew that the NAACP itself dated to about 1910 and that there were strong movements against lynching and other racist actions.
What I did not appreciate was that people were doing “classic civil rights” actions a bit earlier than this narrative suggests. For example, when I was preparing for our discussion of Plessy, I read a little about the background of the cases. I learned that Plessy was a “staged” case – a New Orleans civil rights group, the “Comité des Citoyens of New Orleans,” wanted to challenge segregation of trains by getting a mixed raced, light skinned man arrested. He was supposed to be the Rosa Parks of the day. The Comité was a club of 18 New Orleans citizens, including a former Lieutenant Governor. This suggests to me that resistant to racial separation had deep roots, more than most people suspect.
Take away #3: I’ll finish this post with a brief comment about the role of education in post-Civil War Black rights. Today, we think of education as the epicenter for Civil Rights litigation, but that wasn’t quite right. The reason is that Jim Crow was built after the compromise of 1876, and even then, there were lots of moves to restrict Black rights before that point. However, the public school system as we know was built from about 1890 to 1930, when states started requiring attendance. Later, as schooling became a certification for the labor force, school segregation became a much more acute issue.
This comes out in multiple ways. For example, early Plessy era litigation, involved things like transportation and jobs. The “classic Civil Rights” cases that we now remember come about 40 to 60 years later. When you read historical accounts of Civil Rights strategy, you get the feeling that education segregation took Civil Rights attorneys by surprise in the early 1900s and this is even mentioned once or twice. Another data point: the way the NAACP got clients was to let people bring complaints to them about local issues. It was only until the 1940s or 1950s when you had lots of school based complaints, which you could then bundle into bigger cases like Brown. This suggests to me that while education based litigation is important for its intrinsic merit and usefulness for precedent, the bulk of racial segregation happens in other domains, like housing or employment or criminal justice.