The New Jim Crow Is the Old Jim Crow.

AuthorEyer, Katie R.
PositionBook review

Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy


A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History



Our nation's canonical racial histories tell a story of dramatic change. (1) Resistance to racial equality in the civil rights era ("old racism") is conceptualized, as Jeanne Theoharis puts it, as "personal hatefulness... the governor snarling at the University of Alabama entrance, the Mississippi voter registrar continually slamming the door on would-be Black voters, the white mother spitting at Black children." (2) "New racism," to the extent it is acknowledged to exist, is generally perceived as subtle and perhaps even subconscious--different in quality and form from the racism of the past. (3) In this telling, the civil rights movement--always respected (and respectable)--succeeded in its aims : dismantling the open segregation of the Jim Crow South. (4) The causes of modern racial inequality--and the obstacles to its remediation--are characterized as fundamentally distinct from those undergirding historical racial inequality. (5)

A growing body of work by historians of the South and of the civil rights movement challenges this overly simplistic account and demonstrates that there is far less discontinuity between the past and the present than we (6) might like to believe. (7) As these historians have shown, resistance to racial equality during the civil rights era took many forms--of which explicit Jim Crow-style statutes and practices were but one. (8) Even before Brown v. Board of Education, (9) opponents of desegregation and racial equality--both Southern and Northern--had embraced ostensibly "race neutral" measures and rhetoric to entrench racial inequality where open racial discrimination was no longer sanctioned. (10) As "massive resistance" (11) collapsed, race-neutral (12) approaches became the dominant frame for resistance to racial equality in the South--just as they had long been in the North. (13)

Historians have also, by offering a much richer account of opponents of desegregation and other racial-equality measures, complicated perceptions of such opponents as uniformly the product of raw racial animus. While, to be sure, racial animus played a substantial role in opposition to the civil rights movement, many opponents--in both the North and the South--perceived themselves to be acting for "good" reasons--reasons they did not see as reflecting racial hatred. (14) Rather, many of the tropes invoked by segregationists and other opponents of racial equality--of black criminality and dangerousness, of black students' academic unpreparedness, of property rights, and of safe neighborhoods--were perceived by opponents as reflecting real concerns. (15) Thus, many opponents of desegregation would have perceived little resemblance between themselves and the animus-driven archetype of segregationist resistance--just as many white Americans today perceive themselves as fundamentally dissimilar from segregationists of the civil rights era.

Elizabeth Gillespie McRae's Mothers of Massive Resistance and Theoharis's A More Beautiful and Terrible History are both welcome additions to the burgeoning historical literature complicating the distance we seek to place between our racial past and present. McRae's Mothers of Massive Resistance places white women at the center of efforts to maintain white supremacy in the Jim Crow South, tracing the complex and evolving ways that white women and mothers sought to preserve racial privilege. (16) By following a core group of white women activists in the era leading up to and after Brown, McRae shows the evolving rhetoric and strategies of opposition to desegregation and its increasing representation in "colorblind" (17) frames. (18) By demonstrating how these women integrated themselves into a national conservative movement--and undertook the work of reproducing racial hierarchy in innumerable localized and private ways not touched by the law--McRae's work suggests why it would be facile to assume that formal legal equality has undone the structures of racial hierarchy. (19)

Theoharis's A More Beautiful and Terrible History similarly complicates our triumphalist perception of the civil rights era, taking on both sides of our oversimplified account. As Theoharis persuasively demonstrates, the civil rights movement itself was neither so beloved in its own time nor so domesticated as contemporary accounts would suggest. Martin Luther King, Jr., opposed discrimination, segregation, and police brutality in both the North and the South--and for this reason, among others, was widely unpopular with white Americans at the time of his death. (20) Robust grassroots civil rights movements existed in both the North and the South, and challenged forms of segregation and discrimination that are, in many regards, strikingly similar to those we live with today. (21) Just as the Black Lives Matter movement is today subjected to criticism by multiple constituencies, the civil rights movement was criticized by both whites and some blacks as pushing too hard, using unlawful and disruptive methods, and seeking to introduce dangerous and damaging reforms. (22)

On the other side, Theoharis demonstrates how our triumphalist narrative of the civil rights movement dovetails with our flattened, animus-focused account of the actions of segregationists. Theoharis shows how our caricatured account of opponents of desegregation--what she refers to as "the redneckification of racism"--melds with our accounts of the civil rights movement to allow us to imagine ourselves as much further removed than we actually are from the racial inequality of the past. (23) Rather, many opponents of desegregation during the civil rights era deployed familiar and often ostensibly race-neutral frames to resist meaningful desegregation. (24) As Theoharis suggests, it is only through our mythologization and flattening of both the civil rights movement and its opponents that we can perceive our racial present as fundamentally disconnected from our racial past.

Drawing on the work of Theoharis and McRae--as well as that of other historians--this Book Review makes the case that recapturing these more complicated accounts of our racial past is critical to the racial-equality work of the present. (25) As the work of Theoharis, McRae, and others demonstrates, it is only through highly selective memorialization that we can claim a clear break from the structures and ideologies of racial subordination that existed in the civil rights era. And yet this distance is what allows us to exculpate ourselves from the racial inequality of the present. (26) Fully embracing our complicated racial history thus has important implications for contemporary race equality work both inside and outside of the courts.

In law, in particular, embracing these more complicated histories calls upon us to reimagine the doctrine at the heart of contemporary antidiscrimination law: disparate treatment. With a fuller understanding of the motives and self-perception of racial-justice opponents, it is readily apparent why the "intent" proxy that the Supreme Court often uses for disparate treatment is inadequate. Rather, disparate treatment doctrine must, in fact, focus on disparate treatment: the ways in which racial minorities continue to be treated differently across a host of domains. So too history suggests an important role in disparate treatment doctrine for stereotypes, which have long undergirded the justifications for racial inequality, and for skeptical consideration of facially race-neutral measures, which have served as a form of "colorblind" Jim Crow for 150 years.

This Review proceeds in five Parts. Part I introduces A More Beautiful and Terrible History and Mothers of Massive Resistance more fully. It then situates them within the broader body of historical work calling into question our standard accounts of the civil rights era. As this Part lays out, Theoharis's and McRae's books are important new additions to an outpouring of contemporary historical scholarship that challenges virtually every aspect of our standard accounts of the civil rights era, and in so doing should complicate our understandings of our racial past and present.

Part II turns to an in-depth discussion of one of the most substantial contributions of the historical literature in this area, complicating our unidimensional accounts of opponents of desegregation and other civil rights measures. As historians such as Theoharis, McRae, and others have shown, our caricature of segregationists as exclusively motivated by raw racial animus and exclusively located within the South has caused us largely to overlook the wide array of actors that opposed desegregation and the many reasons they put forward. Moreover, many of those reasons--such as worries about school quality, stereotypes about the morals and academic unpreparedness of African American students, and concerns regarding state erosion of parental control--look not so very different from those widely embraced today. Thus, the work of historians--by affording greater nuance and complexity to our understandings of who opposed desegregation and why--fundamentally problematizes the distance we place between ourselves and historical opponents of racial equality.

Part III turns to the historical work that demonstrates that not only the perspectives, but also the forms, of legal discrimination in the Jim Crow era are not so very distant from...

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