We need a third Reconstruction

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Our name is America, and we are a race-oholic. I said, “we.” Some are in recovery. Some are in denial. But all of us are afflicted by this very much homemade addiction.

Rehabilitation is possible, but only if we face the problem and admit to the harm done to others and ourselves. And only if we understand that there is no final cure. Whatever our progress, history tells us that we will always be in danger of a backlash. At present, our cycle of binge-reform-relapse continues.

To the deniers, I acknowledge that not all problems within the black community are due to racial discrimination. And too, that some black demagogues have undeniably built careers out of cynical race-baiting, which, despite psychological satisfaction, materially harms many of the people it claims to help. It’s worth remembering, though, that blacks learned that craft by observing white demagogic antics over centuries and to far greater consequence. But in our fondness for self-destructive narrow mindedness, it seems that all races really are part of one wayward human race. The fact is, racism didn’t end in the 19th century with abolition and the first Reconstruction; instead, we saw the violent backlash of the Klan and Jim Crow. Nor did it end in the 20th century with the civil rights triumphs of the Second Reconstruction, though race relations certainly became less coarse. 

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I am wholeheartedly in favor of better manners, but let’s not kid ourselves about the saving grace of mere interracial courtesy.

As it happens, the supposedly redeeming incantations of “please” and “thank you” have easily meshed with the coded, racist dog whistles that have become so common since the ’60s. And yet, baptized in the river of our civility, we proclaim that the cumulative effects of centuries of injustice have all been washed away.

We are like the privileged younger generation of a family of thieves swearing our own purity while still hording the loot stolen by our forefathers, and sputtering our righteous indignation when the injured parties are reluctant to “get over it” and “move on.”

More recently, the momentous election of Barack Obama, our first black president, did not signal racism’s end either. It did though, predictably, prompt the momentous backlash of the election of an anti-Obama, Donald Trump — a stunningly ignorant, corrupt, deceitful neo-fascist, who is manifestly unfit to be president. Except for, as he himself emphasized, his belligerent whiteness.

With birtherism, anti-immigration hysterics and Islamophobia, Trump rose to political prominence on a message of ethno-racial bigotry. Unsurprisingly, surveys reveal that, in the primaries of 2016, it was primarily a high degree of “racial resentment” — not abortion or economic protectionism — that drove voters to him rather than to his 16 Republican competitors. In the general election, Republicans who had opposed Trump overwhelmingly retreated into hear-no-evil, see-no-evil obliviousness to justify their shift to support. As a result, here we are, relapsed into the gutter, again.

What do we now know? Racism is a moral and intellectual failing. Prayers alone, though, won’t cast out its demons. Its manias can’t be debated into surrender. Long before Trump became one of its “pushers,” the opiate of racism was peddled by the wealthy few to divide the un-wealthy majority against itself. The con worked, then and now. Racism is about power, anti-democratic power.

But if racism is fundamentally anti-democratic, it must be countered by pro-democracy education and mobilization. Not just once, though. Again and again. The first Reconstruction was murdered. The second is being slowly strangled. It’s time for a third Reconstruction of American Democracy.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Wiggins, a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor, is taking an indefinite hiatus from this column to work on another project.