greatregression

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Part 2 in a Series.  Click here for Part 1.

Racism pervades American history as its immoral underbelly, casting aspersion on so many deservingly proud accomplishments.  The US Constitution is probably the greatest system ever devised for balancing power in a government as to counteract the tendency for increasing power in one person or one group of people.  The founders had first hand experience with totalitarianism and understood the human condition well.  Those who initially get even a small taste of control over the lives of their fellow human beings, tend to seek ways to continue and maximize that power.  Yet, in this very same document that represents such genius, the Constitution also contains an unmistakeable evil, declaring an entire population not fully human because of the color their skin.  The Constitution declared enslaved African as 3/5ths of a person for the purposes of population counting, but their slaveholding masters considered them as a good deal less than 3/5ths of a human being, choosing rather to hold them as property.  Slavery is America's original sin, a sin whose repentance never fully materialized across periods of progress and retrenchment.

America's Uneven Progress on Racial Justice

Thomas Jefferson, like perhaps no other figure, embodies the American contradiction of meaningful, earth-changing progress coupled with a virulent racism that casts a long shadow over such accomplishment. The author of the Declaration of Independence posited the Enlightenment notion of fundamental human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness forever shifting notions of the role of government and kicking off a centuries long expansion in our thinking about the inherent rights of human beings.  Jefferson was also a slaveholder with whom no excuse can be made for being a product of his times.  Indeed, he knew clearly the moral repercussions of the evils of slavery stating in a letter in 1820, "But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."  Yet he made no change and died without resolving this moral conflict for himself or the nation.

Jefferson's grounding the nation's birth in human rights created a vital reference point for which to launch various movements for racial justice from abolitionism to the Civil Rights era.  Almost 200 years after the Declaration was written, Martin Luther King Jr. led the march on Washington anchoring his entreaty for cashing the moral check inherent in Jefferson's articulation of the human rights rationale for the founding of the nation: 

"In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The Civil Rights movement at its apex in 1963 saw the passage of the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Acts in the subsequent 2 years. The federal government continued intervention to end Jim Crow segregation in the South.  Affirmative action policies were put in place to ensure fairness and anti-poverty legislation would seek to ease the economic burden of America's sordid history with African Americans.  Such accomplishments seemed impossible only years before given the uneven progress on racial justice issues.  Yet the Civil Rights movement was built on centuries of individual heroics and movements of African Americans fighting for their freedom.    

The Civil War emancipated enslaved Africans from the bond of slavery after two and a half centuries of the institution.  The abolitionist movement pressured Lincoln and gained political power in Congress.  While reparations that could and should have been made were not, Reconstruction led to a tremendous amount of progress with African Americans taking roles in commerce and politics.  When Reconstruction ended prematurely, the South fell into the familiar normalized racial violence to ensure that whites maintained total political and commercial power.  Any African American refusing to acquiesce to Jim Crow, found themselves lynched, what we would call today a form of horrific terrorism using violence to engender fear.  

The New Deal saw a set of programs meant to alleviate economic misery, many of which African Americans could participate.  As a result, they abandoned the party of Lincoln for the party of FDR, despite the fact that the Jim Crow south was still largely Democratic.  The nation made greater progress in the New Deal in clearly defining Jefferson's human rights as basic economic rights. Americans had a growing awareness about the plight of African Americans given their inclusion within these new economic compacts.  Jim Crow segregation looked increasingly out of place with these new principles such as FDR's four freedoms.  The contradiction was magnified by the United States' new found role of global superpower fighting racist Nazi's abroad while implementing many similar practices toward the black population on the homefront.  The speed of change thereby picked up as Truman desegregated the military and fought off Southern Democrats seeking to maintain their "way of life."  The Warren Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal in 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education.  King's first foray into the becoming a Civil Rights leader was a year later in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Within the next decade almost all legal structures for segregation and disenfranchisement came to an end.  It is hard to overstate the accomplishments of the movement against incredible odd and power structure bent on using state and vigilante violence to crush it.

Centuries old social structures broke down the span of 20 years, but those who felt a loss from such forays into great equality did not disappear.  Many did not end up ever accepting their African American neighbors as their peers. Our mythology is that since the apex of landmark Civil Rights legislation, the United States continued to make steady progress on racial justice.  Such a narrative fits with our self-definition as Americans.  However, we will see that the Great Regression includes a significant step back on racial justices issues.  Though clouded by progress of individuals, systemic racism did not disappear into thin air and was used effectively by politicians to continue to cull racist votes and enact policies harmful to African Americans.  Since the death of MLK, America has in fact been in a Great Regression on racial justice, happening in tandem with a retrenchment and unwinding of the progress made across a wide range of justice issues.

We'll track the stagnant and regressing progress on racial justice next.  

Added a post  to  , greatregression

Do you remember this stunning moment?  Seems like a lifetime ago now.

America's original sins of slavery and racism seemed at least momentarily to be overcome by the  purveyor of hope, an inspiring figure who spoke with the eloquence and in the tradition of the great Civil Rights and abolitionist leaders. The goodness of the American people seemed affirmed, voting in a manner some never thought possible, making an African American the leader of the free world.

We were just beginning to understand the ramifications of the global economy in free fall.  We had lived through 9-11 and seen the unity of a collective resolve to conquer fear and terrorism torn asunder by leaders who dragged us into an unrelated war in which winning the peace was an afterthought paid for in American and Iraqi lives and 2 trillion dollars of taxpayer money.  This past and the storms on the horizon were present on election night 2008, but were swept away in the rejoicing of this improbable feat as a nation.  In Barack Obama, America had turned another corner. 

The election of an African American President affirmed that what Martin Luther King Jr. had told us was correct: the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.

Except when it doesn't...

We are coming off what may be the most difficult week in our American political life in quite some time.  The full brunt of the indecency and misogyny of a US President combined with a complicit and conniving Republican Senate leadership undermined the broad support as a fair instrument of government long enjoyed by the Supreme Court since the beginning of the Civil Rights Era  This third branch of our government now is subject to and complicit in the power politics that embraces moral deviance and relativism in the allowance of the sexual assault of women and lying under oath as no real barrier to having a seat on the high court.  The Supreme Court, already comprised of a sexual harasser and other conservative justices that allow unfettered money into our political system will now form a majority that will further erode the gains of the Civil Rights Era, the feminist movement, the labor movement and all the progress that has been made to make this country a more fair and decent society for its citizens dating at least back to the Progressive Era politics of Teddy Roosevelt.  

This is the final step necessary to complete what I call the Great Regression.

The Long Arc of History...

For someone living in the mid-twentieth century as Martin Luther King Jr. did, positing the existence of a moral universe that gets increasingly more just over time seemed like a reasonable conclusion, even amidst the violence and anguish of confronting white Americans in the Civil Rights movement.  Decades of abolitionism, which started small but became an overwhelming force in American politics set the stage for a Civil War that ended slavery while killing off some ten percent of the population.  The excesses of Industrial Revolution and great income inequality were tempered by Progressive Era government regulation and trust busting and New Deal Keynesian economics that sought to provide for everyone's basic needs.  Disenfranchised women organized for decades before finally got the vote and eventually found their way into the workplace.  Labor unions fought for and one greater protections for workers and set the stage for a prosperity that was lifting most ships.  Jim Crow was dismantled by the Supreme Court who served as the guarantor of the civil liberties of black Americans. 

As King's activism got under way, he could believe in the hope that in a democracy like the United States, you could convince enough folks in the population that change was not only necessary, but possible.  When changing minds broadly failed, you could state your case to those in power and eventually they could be morally compelled to act.  The love power that he called activists to embrace was rooted in this hope, and indeed belief, that Civil Rights activism was pulling on that arc.  King could point to a number of important wins to corroborate his thinking.  

The Great Regression Explained.

Right at this juncture in American history, the Conservative movement formed in the modern sense, eventually finding a home in the Republican Party. Nixon's southern strategy first sought to engage  the racist grievances of southern white men who lived through a Civil Rights Era where the social arrangements and full privileges that they grew accustomed to shifted away from them.  Nixon combined this racism with the Republican tenets of a muscular foreign policy, a preference for the wealthy, and an ongoing attack against the new social movements seeking greater equality for women, homosexuals, and people of color.  

By the time Reagan received the nomination in 1980, the modern evangelical movement of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority was in full swing.  The GOP used their opposition to abortion as the wedge issue that would be used to undermine feminism.  Reagan was able to combined the racist aggrievement with this newly politically engaged religious movement to form a winning coalition.  Many working class white folks found themselves pulled into cultural and religious issues, even if the economic policies pursued by the GOP were against their economic interest.  The wealthy would see drastic tax cuts and increases in wealth while Republicans could drape themselves in the flag while holding a Bible.

The Conservative project of the last 40 years is now undeniably at its apex.  Despite an unorthodox conservative in Donald Trump, Republicans found someone who would continue economic policies that favor the rich, while speaking more directly to racist and misogynist grievance of the working class white folks that Nixon targeted in an increasingly culturally and racially diverse nation. Conservatives who spent years chipping away at the underlying tenets of a fair and decent nation that most Americans simply took for granted and in many ways still do are now able to pursue these regressive policies in a more robust way.  Republican leadership like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, would actually prefer that Medicare and Medicaid didn't existed. They voted time and again to kill off Obamacare, even though it provided insurance to millions of Americans.  Conservative governors refused to take Medicaid to insure more of their state's citizens.  The goal is no government involvement in health care or any other social good.  Indeed there is no social good in this thinking, only private gain. This is one of the logical ends to the Reagan Revolution which I would call more broadly the Great Regression.  

The Great Regression has occurred throughout most of the adult lives of those living today.  We have not seen it as this larger retrenchment as periods like President Obama's presidency masked the overall trajectory of the nation's descent into a plutocracy.  We are living it, but understanding the Great Regression on this longer time trajectory will help us think through how we more effectively fight back over the medium and long term.  Even with a mid-term election coming up, the immediate future looks bleak, but progressives and seekers of justice have fought longer odds in American history.  My addendum to King's adage:

The long arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, but only if we make it so...

Click Here for Part 2

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