Our Racial History Marches On

Our Racial History Marches On

The more I teach and think about our history, the more I teach and think about race. It is really inescapable, as highlighted by three events this past week (in reverse order):

  1. President Obama’s masterful speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (video, text).
  2. The Justice Department’s scathing report on race in the Ferguson criminal justice system (full text, commentary from Ta-Nehisi Coates).
  3. The Alabama Supreme Court’s ridiculous ruling ordering local judges to ignore federal court orders (text, New York Times article).

Among other things, Obama’s speech drew a direct connection between the events in Selma and recent “laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote.” I hope it made some conservatives squirm, since I find such laws both abhorrent and a violation of (at least) the spirit of the 24th Amendment. He also, I noticed, eschewed the rhetoric of “the arc of history” in favor of the lesson that “love and hope can conquer hate.”

The Justice Department report is (or should be) one more damning nail in the coffin of the idea that our racial past is behind us. Especially when paired with the Selma commemoration, we must realize that in too many ways our criminal ‘justice’ system continues to reflect that same racial legacy; in too many ways it remains a force for white privilege.

If you haven’t taken the time to listen to This American Life‘s excellent two-part series on policing (“Cops See It Differently”, Part I & Part II), I recommend that you do. One portion that I’ll mention right now is the willingness of even reform police chiefs to declare about each separate incident, “Race was not a factor.” Even if race/racism is not the prime motivating factor in any police encounter, it’s nearly impossible to separate from the daily reality of life in this country. The Justice Department report should remind us of that reality as we seek to improve the system, in Ferguson and elsewhere.

Which brings us to the Alabama Supreme Court order. In response to a federal court order overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Alabama’s Supreme Court directed probate judges to continue with the ban. In doing so, they have placed Alabama’s law (and their interpretation of it) above that of the Federal Constitution (and the federal courts’ interpretation of it). While recognizing that probate judges swear to uphold Alabama law ” except to the extent that that duty may be altered or overridden by the United States Constitution,” the Court simply substitutes it’s own constitutional interpretation for that of the federal courts.

This is, of course, all classic legal rhetoric from the resistance to racial integration. The Court’s order and logic closely follows that laid out in the Southern Manifesto, a segregationist response to Brown v. Board of Education. That document complained that the court was trampling on the “habits, customs, tradition and way of life” of Southerners, substituting it’s “personal political and social ideas for the established law of the land,” and “creating chaos and confusion.” Just as the Alabama justices, the signatories of the Southern Manifesto declared their fealty to the Constitution while rejecting the federal courts’ supremacy in interpreting that document.


The complicated legacy of our racial history was on stark display this week. Obama highlighted both the progress made and the miles to go. The Justice Department held up one police department to painful scrutiny to show how race continues to be more than a factor. And Alabama’s Supreme Court reminded us that the legal framework of White Resistance has never been fully replaced in the minds of many jurists. As Obama declared in Selma:

We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts, to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character — requires admitting as much.

“We are capable of bearing a great burden,” James Baldwin wrote, “once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

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a reform-minded historian, center-left Democrat, and religious believer.

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