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kottke.org posts about Reconstruction

The Next Reconstruction?

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 08, 2020

In The Atlantic, Adam Serwer writes about the parallels between the present moment and Reconstruction, the post-Civil War period where the biggest strides toward racial justice in America were taken. In response to the protests happening in American streets this summer, Trump pulled out Nixon’s “law and order” playbook but that move backfired on Trump, much like the way that Andrew Johnson’s push for the US government to remain white during the early years of Reconstruction did.

The shift that’s occurred this time around “wasn’t by happenstance,” Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist and a writer, told me, nor is it only the product of video evidence. “It has been the work of generations of Black activists, Black thinkers, and Black scholars that has gotten us here” — people like Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, and others. “Six years ago, people were not using the phrase systemic racism beyond activist circles and academic circles. And now we are in a place where it is readily on people’s lips, where folks from CEOs to grandmothers up the street are talking about it, reading about it, researching on it, listening to conversations about it.”

All of that preparation met the moment: George Floyd’s killing, the pandemic’s unmistakable toll on Black Americans, and Trump’s callous and cynical response to both.

Still, like Andrew Johnson, Trump bet his political fortunes on his assumption that the majority of white Americans shared his fears and beliefs about Black Americans. Like Johnson, Trump did not anticipate how his own behavior, and the behavior he enabled and encouraged, would discredit the cause he backed. He did not anticipate that the activists might succeed in convincing so many white Americans to see the protests as righteous and justified, that so many white Americans would understand police violence as an extension of his own cruelty, that the pandemic would open their eyes to deep-seated racial inequities.

“I think this country is at a turning point and has been for a little while. We went from celebrating the election of the first Black president in history to bemoaning a white nationalist in the White House,” Alicia Garza told me. “People are grappling with the fact that we’re not actually in a post-racial society.”

If the reaction to eight years of Obama was a white nationalist President, then maybe the reaction to that is, finally, the beginning of true racial justice and equality in America. But here is the big question:

In the past, the dream of remaking society has faltered when white Americans have realized what they would have to sacrifice to deliver freedom. The question now is whether this time is different.

And further:

Believing in racial equality in the abstract and supporting policies that would make it a reality are two different things. Most white Americans have long professed the former, and pointedly declined to do the latter. This paradox has shown up so many times in American history that social scientists have a name for it: the principle-implementation gap. This gap is what ultimately doomed the Reconstruction project.

A research paper on the principle-implementation gap puts it plainly:

White Americans accept equality as an ideal yet reject interventions designed to achieve that ideal.

Serwer goes on to say that the sticking point is often economic justice — versus the easier-to-swallow civic justice. Ok, just go read the whole thing before I quote it all. (via @michaelharriot, who called the piece “spectacular”)