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The End of White Supremacy:

Much as I didn't want Obama to win on ideological grounds, I am nonetheless thrilled that American voters elected the first black president.

I've spent a fair chunk of the last two decades writing about post-Civil War African-American history (in the context of constitutional history, e.g.), a history replete with segregation, lynchings, intimidation, humiliation, exclusion and so forth. I can't tell you how disgusted I am when I read this history, and I'm not sure that those of us who haven't studied the history really understand the pervasiveness and invidiousness of the mistreatment of African Americans. Just imagine the mentality, for example, of people who not only took part in brutal lynchings less than a century ago, but hacked off the victims' body parts and kept them as souveniers, and created picture postcards that highlighted the victims desecrated remains!

And the mistreatment of black Americans crossed ideological lines. As late as the 1930s, President Roosevelt refused to support a federal anti-lynching law, and liberal Democrats had few if any compunctions about intentionally creating massive unemployment among southern African American farmers and industrial workers in pursuit of New Deal goals they considered far more important. Adlai Stevenson, as I recall, ran for the presidency with two separate segregationist running mates in the 1950s! Just forty years ago, the Supreme Court had to force Virginia to allow interracial marriage. Now we see the son of a black African father and white mother carrying Virginia in a presidential election. Amazing!

Prejudice, of course, hasn't disappeared, not will it disappear under an Obama presidency. But all American ethnic groups have faced prejudice, sometimes severe prejudice, and thrived nevertheless.

What was unique about American post-slavery prejudice against African Americans, as opposed to the prejudice against other groups, was that it manifested itself in a system of white supremacy that dictated that blacks always be placed in an inferior position to whites. In the South, this was formalized under the law by Jim Crow statutes, and also enforced by lynchings and "whitecapping" against "uppity" black business owners and others who "didn't know their place."

Things were never quite so bad in the North, but there was still tremendous resistance until relatively recently among whites to, for example, allowing blacks serving in supervisory positions over whites. Until fairly recently, most construction unions blatantly refused to accept African American members, mainly because they did not want to acknowledge equality with them on a social level.

Obama's victory tells us that in case anyone had any doubt, the ideology of white supremacy is over and done with, kaput. Again, while blacks still face a fair amount of prejudice, there's a big difference between prejudice and a widespread ideology among the majority population that members of a particular group must be kept in "their place," by custom, law, and violence. "Their place," in effect, is now all the same positions whites occupy, up to and including the most powerful office in the land.

So congratulations to Senator Obama, and to America.

UPDATE: I posted this by accident before I was quite finished, so the current version is slightly edited.

Tern (mail):
Congratulations to President Obama as well!

I do hope that this is the end of the line for individuals such as Sharpton and Jackson. Whatever good they have done, I hope that they are no longer viewed as being needed. And may we move further towards a color-blind America.
11.4.2008 11:45pm
Michael Benson (mail) (www):
Yes, I wish more people really knew that history to understand how amazing this is. I think lots of people--particularly of my generation and younger--simply don't understand how brutal Jim Crow was and how serious the repression the Civil Rights Movement had to overcome was.
11.4.2008 11:46pm
J. Aldridge:
"Just forty years ago, the Supreme Court had to force Virginia to allow interracial marriage."

Many of the reconstructed former rebel states had laws against interracial marriage on the books and those laws were found conforming with the 14th amendment by those who adopted the amendment.

The supreme court is responsible for a great deal of the divisions found in society today because it has refused to allow majorities to exercise self-government.

"Whenever Congress attempts to restrict this right of the majority to rule in the State it will attempt usurpation, and whenever the majority of loyal citizens surrenders that right into the hands of the minority it surrenders the cardinal principle of representative government."

--John A. Bingham, July 20, 1866
11.4.2008 11:47pm
Patrick Rothwell:
David, I'm not certain of Estes Kefauver's precise position on Jim Crow, but he was one of the few southern senators of his time who did not sign the Southern Manifesto.
11.4.2008 11:48pm
Bold:
Obama is half-white and half-black --- many places, including this post, consider him a "black president." however, wouldn't he be as much of a white president as a black president? of course, it'd be more accurate to say bi-racial president
11.4.2008 11:49pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Bold: Race is socially constructed. He thinks he's black, voters think he's black, racists think he's black, black people think he's black... he's black.
11.4.2008 11:51pm
DangerMouse:
I do hope that this is the end of the line for individuals such as Sharpton and Jackson.

Don't bet on it. There's just as much of a possibility that if people see that attending a racist church for 20 years means you can be president, it will only encourage more Sharptons in the future.
11.4.2008 11:52pm
sputnik (mail):
Sasha, if society did not think he is black, did not treat him as black, he'd probably did think about himself as bi-racial
11.4.2008 11:57pm
Kazinski:
I hope conservatives will be able to set an example of principled cooperation when warranted and principled opposition when necessary.
11.4.2008 11:57pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
I'm just going to cut and paste my original response from your deleted thread with the more provacative "end of white supramacy" title.

Exactly how much "white supremacy" was there in this country in the past couple of decades? Besides being the constant boogeyman of the left, white supremacists have been an endangered species for as long as I have been alive. I have met my share of racists, but 80 percent of them were black people I grew up with in NYC. The remaining 20 percent were asians who looked down on non-asians.

I also think you're wrong. The "black leaders" are already talking about how Obama being half white means that racism is still alive and well in this country. And you're kidding yourself if you think Obama is going to support less affirmative action and not more.
11.5.2008 12:07am
Oren:

The supreme court is responsible for a great deal of the divisions found in society today because it has refused to allow majorities to exercise self-government.

Yes, because interracial marriage is such a hot-topic these days. Loving certainly catalyzed a never-ending fight that it continues to be an important factor in politics today.
11.5.2008 12:12am
Jim at FSU (mail):
And if his run against Bobby Rush is any indication, black people don't really think he is very black at all. He's about as black as Carleton from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And there's nothing wrong with that, Carleton kicked ass.
11.5.2008 12:12am
U.Va. Grad:
Christ Almighty, J. Aldridge.

I've certainly disagreed with you about original intent originalism in the past, but this is just ridiculous. I quite seriously believe you should be ashamed of yourself for that post. The notion that bans on interracial marriage should be acceptable because John Bingham (oddly enough, you never talk about anyone else in Congress who voted for the 14th) thought they were okay is simply repellent. Disgusting. And not the "disgusting" that abortion supporters talk about in polite company, where "reasonable people can disagree on it." It's disgusting in a deeply, perversely racist fashion.
11.5.2008 12:18am
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
Obama's victory tells us that the ideology of white supremacy is over and done with, kaput

What a horribly bad joke.

1. No one outside David Duke et al publicly supports white supremacy. Many whites do support it privately, but those are mostly confined to backwoods trailer parks. Anyone in the public eye completely avoids anything even remotely supremacist.

2. The related issue of solidarity is also largely verboten, except when it comes to certain approved voting blocs. Then it's OK. (Note: at the link, BHO supports a subtype of white solidarity).

3. Top Obama adviser Prof. Charles Ogletree says 21st-century white America, as a general rule, remains racist towards Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, and racism is likely to persist for decades -- Barack Obama is an exception only because "he happens to be biracial," so that his election will not be proof that whites have moved beyond racism.

4. Watch in wonder as for the next four years BHO's surrogates play the race card every single chance they get in order to push their agenda.
11.5.2008 12:18am
therut (mail):
I agree with everthing you said.
11.5.2008 12:25am
csm:
White supremacy is alive and well, perhaps not as potent an inspiration for groups like the Aryan Nation or the KKK, but people who believe blacks are inferior are alive, well and widespread. I live in Boston, which is certainly as racist as my home state of Texas. I work in a building full of people who would not vote for Barack Obama for one reason - he's black. Same goes for our governor, Deval Patrick. Racism will always be with us to some degree. Tonight is certainly a victory for color-blindness, but it is not an exorcism of America's grievous racial history.
11.5.2008 12:30am
lpc (mail):
You're really using Deval Patrick, who won by well over 20% after a string of Republican governors, as an example of how prominent white supremacy still is?
11.5.2008 12:36am
Kazinski:
csm,
I run across racists from time to time, and for the most part they are lower class whites on the margins of society, most don't vote, and those that do vote democratic. The main reason they are racists is because they feel they have to have someone to look down upon.
11.5.2008 12:41am
J. Aldridge:
U.Va. Grad said: "I've certainly disagreed with you about original intent originalism in the past, but this is just ridiculous."

I'm a firm believer of original meaning and "not intent."

"oddly enough, you never talk about anyone else in Congress who voted for the 14th"

He was the floor manager of many reconstruction bills AND for some reason the courts love to either quote him directly or quote his words found under the fourteenth's first section! Why can't I quote him?
11.5.2008 12:42am
tsotha:
On the contrary, Oren, Loving is about to open up a whole new can of worms as the Supreme Court uses it to force gay marriage on an unwilling electorate.
11.5.2008 12:47am
LM (mail):
Excellent post, DB. This is a poignant moment in our nation's history.
11.5.2008 12:47am
Randy R. (mail):
And don't forget that the Mormons would not allow blacks as members of their church through the 60s.

Somehow, they got a revelation from God that they are people too.
11.5.2008 12:49am
Nathan_M (mail):
Thank you for the excellent post, Professor Bernstein.
11.5.2008 1:00am
David Warner:
Sasha,

"Bold: Race is socially constructed. He thinks he's black, voters think he's black, racists think he's black, black people think he's black... he's black."

And yet he acts whiter than Tiger Woods.

I'd say he's well on the way to post-racial. Hopefully he can take the rest of us along for the ride.
11.5.2008 1:05am
BABH:
I went to Yale in the 1990s. More than one of my friends had parents who believed that blacks were inherently inferior - less intelligent, less morally upright, less human than white people.

They would not call themselves "white supremacists" but that's who we're talking about.
11.5.2008 2:16am
Ricardo (mail):
Exactly how much "white supremacy" was there in this country in the past couple of decades? Besides being the constant boogeyman of the left, white supremacists have been an endangered species for as long as I have been alive.

White supremacists have carried out some of the worst domestic terrorist attacks in U.S. history. An attack by two white supremacist numbskulls was just recently thwarted by our government. Are Islamic extremists also a "boogeyman"? After all, there aren't very many of them in the U.S. and they haven't carried out a successful attack on U.S. soil in the past seven years.

This being said, Obama appears to have carried about 40% of the vote in many of the Deep South states. In the exit polls, a majority of the 18-24 age bracket in these states voted for Obama. So I agree with Bernstein about just how much of a fringe belief white supremacy has become.
11.5.2008 2:35am
BABH:
I would add that McCain's concession speech was terrific. Gracious, apposite, well delivered - it's almost as though he had prepared it.

I agree entirely with Prof. Bernstein. Is it an exaggeration to say that the last great battle of the Civil War was won on November 4th, 2008?
11.5.2008 2:40am
eyesay:
BABH: "I would add that McCain's concession speech was terrific. Gracious, apposite, well delivered - it's almost as though he had prepared it."

I agree with you, but what do you mean, "almost as though"? Don't you think he's known for a long time that this outcome was likely, and had prepared something before election day?
11.5.2008 3:18am
A Law Dawg:
Is it an exaggeration to say that the last great battle of the Civil War was won on November 4th, 2008?


Let's see how he does, and what challenges he faces going forward.
11.5.2008 4:15am
EIDE_Interface (mail):
I can see Bernstein is obligated to get along with his liberal racist friends. But I will not congratulate Hussein on his "victory". This is a black day for America, maybe the blackest ever.
11.5.2008 4:25am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Liberals will have a hard time, morally and logically, objecting to conservatives treating O as they treated Bush.
Should be interesting watching them try, though.
If there's a racial angle here, it will be that the accusation of racism will be, if it is not already, seen as a manipulative scam.
The race card will be played so often and so falsely that it will be dead before the end of the O admin.
11.5.2008 4:50am
vladimir (mail):
"Liberals will have a hard time, morally and logically, objecting to conservatives treating O as they treated Bush."

Oh please.

As a conservative who voted for Obama (proudly and without internal struggling), I don't think this statement has any credibility. Conservatives will have no justification for treating Obama as liberals did Bush, unless Obama invades a foreign country for no reason.
11.5.2008 6:02am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
vlad.
Really?
I believe the libs were trashing Bush before the votes were counted in 2000.
Blaming him for everything. I recall a person claiming it was Bush's fault that unemployment hadn't been extended. I pointed out the measure had failed in the senate. Her response was, "I still think it was Bush's fault". She was not alone.
In addition, your nonsensical implication that only the invasion of Iraq got anybody's dander up is...nonsensical.
11.5.2008 7:27am
corneille1640 (mail):

Sasha, if society did not think he is black, did not treat him as black, he'd probably did think about himself as bi-racial

Wasn't that Sasha's original point?
11.5.2008 7:45am
Sam H (mail):
"Conservatives will have no justification for treating Obama as liberals did Bush, unless Obama invades a foreign country for no reason."

Please. Bush had valid reasons and Congress agreed with them.
11.5.2008 7:59am
Reader5000:
The entire frame of "whites used to be violently cruel supremacists but now have come around" is honestly an astoundingly powerful meme, having found its way into standard K-12 American curriculum and of course current public discourse. I believe it works because it plays on human guilt, much like say religion, and people love feeling guilty yet remorseful, as it alleviates boredom. I don't dispute there were pockets of repugnant violence and hatred motivated by race in America. However, the majority of societal racial relations was and still is explained simply in terms of human genetic tendency to self-congregate and basic xenophobia. It was also caused by historical inertia: it is expensive to 'enfranchise' untrained workers just to be "diverse" in the workplace. Contrary to Bernstein's hateful albeit socially acceptable invective, there was and is nothing special or unique about white-black relations in the US. It's called 'group selection' and it occurs in all animals.
11.5.2008 8:24am
big guy (mail):
Is there any longer any justification for Affirmative Action or any other racial set-asides?
11.5.2008 9:05am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I put in my time in the Sixties doing civil rights in Mississippi. A year and a half ago, we had a reunion. I was not surprised to find that probably half the folks were still living on--and dining out on--their forty-years-gone adventure.
The fight against racism defined their youth and they won't give it up, or they'd have nothing left of themselves.
So they need to see racism everywhere. Or they're lost.
11.5.2008 9:38am
Redlands (mail):
When it comes to race I'm a confirmed skeptic. The election is a milestone but will it make much of a difference in race relations?
As long as people resort to the "race card" at the drop of a hat, no, it won't.
11.5.2008 10:19am
Suzy (mail):
Thanks for the reminder of our history and a sense of perspective on what has been accomplished. Also, Prof. Bernstein, after being annoyed with some of your posts over the last two months, I think your posts in the last few days including this one have shown a lot of class. You are able to recognize and celebrate the important things, while still being committed to the issues you should continue to argue about, and generally you display an awesome attitude even when your preferred candidate was losing. Thank you!
11.5.2008 10:41am
EH (mail):
Redlands:
When it comes to race I'm a confirmed skeptic. The election is a milestone but will it make much of a difference in race relations?


It can't hurt.

It's truly astounding to see the level of abject myopia in the comments above. This election is not going to just "flip a switch" on race relations. It's another step. A big step, but just another one. We will all relearn in a few weeks, as we do every year when our TVs play host to the philosophy of Rankin-Bass, it's "one step in front of the other."
11.5.2008 10:43am
LT Dan:
My lame attempt at trying to clarify Sasha's point:

I am half-white, half-chinese, I was raised in Montana. I speak no chinese.
However, to others (being 1 of 2 asian kids in my class during all of school), I was chinese. When my wife and I lived in Hawaii, I was given the benefit of the doubt of being "local" unless I self-indentified as a mainlander.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but you tend to get lumped with whatever group you look like. To most of America, Obama is black. I kind of felt the same way, when Halle Berry won her Academy Award. She was also raised her white mother, if I remember correctly. But, to most of us, she is black because she looks more black than white.

EH has the truth of it. It is a step, but race still exists. Racism will exist as long as race does. Though we as a nation have made great strides, as this election evidences.
11.5.2008 11:22am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Berry dissed her mother, who raised her, and celebrated the father who dumped them both.
Class act.
11.5.2008 11:45am
Oren:

On the contrary, Oren, Loving is about to open up a whole new can of worms as the Supreme Court uses it to force gay marriage on an unwilling electorate.

I'm doubtful there will be a SCOTUS case finding a right to gay marriage, but, let's suppose for the sake of argument that it happens. Just as in Loving, there will be immediate opposition but look now 40 years from Loving, there is absolutely no mainstream political support for banning interracial marriage.

Gay marriage has always been a question of when, not if.
11.5.2008 1:36pm
bbbeard (mail):
Celebrating Obama's win because it means we've moved beyond racism makes about as much sense as bemoaning it because it means sexism is alive and well. Would you have complained that a McCain victory would have meant that the era of White Supremacy continued? I find this whole line of argument disgusting.

And I fear your premise is defective, as well. Do you think Obama's election will help or hurt David Duke's recruitment? I'm not saying that avoiding aid to the David Dukes of the world is a reason to vote against Obama, any more than the claim that McCain's election would have helped Al Qaeda recruiting is an argument against McCain. But you have to recognize that Obama's election will stoke, not starve, racial tension, not least because his minions describe any opposition on any basis as "racism". The few real racists that are left will exploit the resentment that kind of horsesh*t engenders. We will have to find a way to work through this tension, even as we oppose Obama's policies.

I live in Memphis. We have had a black mayor pretty much the entire time I've lived here. Has that made racial tensions diminish? I used to think it might, but experience has taught me better.

BBB
11.5.2008 10:07pm
LM (mail):
Richard Aubrey:

The fight against racism defined their youth and they won't give it up, or they'd have nothing left of themselves.

I don't doubt that's true, but again I think you're seeing something more or less universal through your ideological filter. Many people of every political stripe form a lifelong identity around the organizing events or fashions of their adolescence and early adulthood.* Others are more malleable. The tendency to keep seeing the world through the eyes of youth is probably stronger than average in the group you describe since their social-political environment was unusually momentous. Just like their parents never "got over" the Depression and WWII.

Have some pity for those who came along a few years later, i.e., too late for Civil Rights and Rock and Roll, but too soon for Ronald Reagan. They were left to find their way through the post-Nam, post-Watergate, stagflation miasma. Jimmy Carter may have been a terrible president with a tin ear, but he was absolutely right that there was a national malaise. Disco sure as hell didn't help. Ironically, these "tweeners" may be better now at navigating the world's changes than are your contemporaries or the kids of the Reagan Revolution. Their formative experiences were so alienating they didn't form an anchor that holds them back.

Anyway, I digress. The point is that these things are not inherently ideological. If you can't see that there's a younger contingent whose feet are as entrenched in Reagan cement as your ex-cohorts are in the 60's, I'd suggest taking a few steps back from the picture.


[*ergo part of Obama's post-boomer appeal]
11.6.2008 3:52pm
bbbeard (mail):
Along these lines, this is outrageous:

Cross Burned on Lawn of Obama Supporter

I hope everyone here can at least agree we've got to work together against the real racists....

BBB
11.6.2008 10:11pm
bubbatech:
what amazes me is that barack knows as much about the black experience as I do as a filipino. he was completely abandoned by his black father and his black family (they all went back to africa). he was raised by his white mother and white grandmother. they went through the heartache and turmoil, they are the ones that sacrificed. barack was no more raised in a black household than i was.

now, i am proud and honored that we finally have someone of color as the top position in our country, but to say that he knows what it is like to be black, come on.
11.7.2008 9:09am
kjr291 (mail):
Am I living on another planet? What about the crime rate-the violent crime rate- in America? What about the billions of welfare dollars being spent every day in America? What about our public school systems that have been decimated? You're disgusted reading the history of blacks in America, and I'm disgusted seeing what blacks have done to America. Those laws you speak of were not to keep black people down, but to protect white society. As those laws have been undone, so, too, has white society. The majority of white people are law abiding. I feel it is throwing pearls before swine when it comes to the black population. I don't believe they (the majority of blacks) will ever change. This is coming from a man who fought all of his life to help black people; however, my experiences have altered my views considerably.
11.7.2008 3:11pm