Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent post – “The Tragedy and Betrayal of Booker T. Washington” – is fantastic, and you’d be doing yourself a favor if you take a few minutes out of your day to read it. I just want to comment on this particular passage:
The dominant logic of the post-Reconstruction era held that the real problem wasn’t white racists, but carpetbaggers and meddlers from up North who’d elevated illiterate blacks above their station. The white Southerner, presumably, had no existential objection to blacks, they just didn’t want to live next door to them or have an illiterate and morally degenerate population electing their politicians. To this Washington, and much of black America, said Fine. Cease fire. You let us be, we’ll let you be.
In retrospect, this was a grievous error. In point of fact, whites actually did have an existential objection to black people. Their beef wasn’t that illiterates and moral degenerates might get too much power. Quite the opposite. Their beef was that blacks would prove to not be illiterates and moral degenerates, and thus fully able to compete with them. To see this point illustrated, one need only look at the history of race riots in the South. When white mobs set upon black communities they didn’t simply burn down the “morally degenerate” portions–they attacked the South’s burgeoning black middle and working class and its institutions. They went for the churches, the schools and the businesses. It’s one thing to be opposed to black amorality. It’s quite another to be opposed to black progress.
One of the (many) things that hamper intelligent discussions of race is the fact that most Americans don’t even have an inkling of the extent to which American race history is marked by terrible violence directed towards African-Americans. I think it’s fair to say that most white Americans (and even a fair number of black Americans) see America’s racial history in three steps: first blacks were slaves, and then – for a while – they were half-free, and couldn’t drink from certain water fountains or go to certain restaurants. Finally, with the help of Rosa Parks and MLK, they became fully free! The End. I’d wager that few Americans realize that for a considerable period of time (certainly more than half a century), whites waged an organized and sustained campaign against black progress, and that that has had tremendous implications for the social, political and economic development of black America. That this isn’t common knowledge is almost certainly one (big) reason for the sorry state of our racial dialogue.