Teaching (amid a) White Backlash

tags: racism, teaching history, critical race theory

William Horne, Co-Founder and Editor of The Activist History Review, is an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University who writes about the relationship of race to labor, freedom, disability, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana.

It became clear to many of us that we were in the midst of a white backlash movement in the summer of 2021, when Republicans began passing voting restrictions, expanding police and vigilante power over protestors, and waging a bizarre anti-“CRT” campaign reminiscent of the segregationist protests of the 1950s and 1960s. The antidemocratic laws that white conservatives passed are now poised to usher in an apartheid state, a new Jim Crow built upon antidemocratic sabotage and violence. While I could hardly fathom the exact contours of this backlash movement when I first proposed to teach my “White Backlash and the American State” graduate seminar, I anticipated that a course of that nature would be topical in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Donald Trump’s defeat, and the failed January 6th Insurrection he fomented to overturn the results of the 2020 election. 

The course is designed to help students understand 1) the contours of white backlashes, 2) their historical impact, and 3) the ways they shape the world we inherit. Below I discuss a few major takeaways from the course and what they reveal about our current moment of backlash. Learning this history not only helps us better understand our world as it actually exists, but provides an opportunity to reject the racist politics of backlash and, together, to demand a just, equitable, and livable future.

Why(te) Backlashes?

White backlash movements generally erupt when white conservatives imagine a threat to the racial hierarchies that they use to extract wealth and power from those around them. According to the backlashers themselves, race isn’t about “hate in your heart” or that mythical “racist bone,” but about access to schoolshousingjobs, and voting rights. The protests and racist violence of white backlashers demand a world where these resources are withheld from racialized communities–especially Black Americans – and distributed to groups of white Americans deemed more deserving. The demands of today’s backlashers fit the historical pattern identified clearly by Carol Anderson in White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide (2016). Anderson shows that historical white backlashers organized around a perceived loss of resources – segregated neighborhoods or schools, for example – and deployed vigilante violence alongside policymaking to create a more restrictive state. While famed segregationist George Wallace famously pronounced in his 1963 inaugural address that segregation itself was a moral imperative, for instance, he made damn sure to position himself literally in the doorway of white schools, protecting those white resources from other Americans. 

One thing the literature around white backlashes makes clear – and I’m afraid this is rather daunting – is that the most violent backlashes occur in response to interracial organizing. That was true during the Reconstruction era, when white conservatives engaged in genocidal violence against Black Americans and white leftists who had organized around expanded ideas of citizenship and democracy that culminated in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Reactionaries waged a similar suppressionist campaign to destroy the interracial organizing of the Populists, who won the state legislature and governor’s mansion in North Carolina in 1896 by uniting working-class Black and white voters against the moneyed interests. White conservatives in North Carolina launched what they termed a “White Supremacy Campaign,” a media blitz that fabricated rape charges against Black men on the theory that holding political power (as a race) gave them an unquenchable desire to rape white women. (Zucchino, 114-122) It was, of course, a lie. In his memoir Editor in Politics, campaign architect and newspaper editor Josephus Daniels even admitted that the accounts were fabrications designed to incite white supremacist violence. The race-baiting led them to victory in 1898, but even this wasn’t enough for white conservatives who attempted an election-day lynching of the governor and orchestrated a coup in Wilmington, massacring an untold number of Black residents.

Read entire article at Clio and the Contemporary

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