Do White Conservatives Hate Black People?

What is the connection between conservatism and school segregation?  A new “retro report” in the New York Times about the desegregation project in Charlotte, North Carolina assumes that “conservatives” obviously opposed desegregation.  Is that connection really as obvious as it seems?

The desegregation documentary describes Charlotte’s experience.  In the 1970s, Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County became the focus of a newly aggressive court-ordered busing program.  Schools and school districts, the Supreme Court ruled, must do more to ensure racial balance in public schools.

The initial reaction in Charlotte was furious, but the program eventually became the poster child for busing.  So much so that a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the district had fulfilled its deseg obligations.  At least partly as a result, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are now resegregated by race and income level.

For historians of race and education, the story is not news.  But for those of us trying to understand the meanings of “conservatism” in American education, the way it is told is important.  The New York Times piece includes comments by journalist B. Drummond Ayres Jr. In that “Reporter’s Notebook,” Ayres offers an explanation for the winning campaign to resegregate America’s schools.  As Ayres explains,

White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill. [Emphasis added.]

In this telling, “conservatives” have been the brake on the progress of racial desegregation.  Politicians who considered themselves conservative had a prescribed opinion toward school desegregation.

Is that a fair accusation?  Did conservatives as a rule really push for slower desegregation?  More interesting, how did conservatism come to be perceived as the side of white racial status-quo-ism?

In my current book, I explore two twentieth-century school controversies in which race and school deseg played leading parts.  The first took place in Pasadena, California, in 1950, the second in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974.

In Pasadena, a “progressive” school superintendent added racial desegregation to his list of progressive reforms.  Conservatives kicked him out.  In Kanawha County, a new textbook series included provocative excerpts from black militants such as Eldridge Cleaver.  Conservatives boycotted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the books.

Each time, the conservative side became the side of anti-black racism.  But in each case, conservatives insisted they were not racist.

In Pasadena, for example, one woman stood up at a heated school-board meeting and denied all charges of racism.  She opposed the desegregation plan but said she could not be racist, since one of her closest friends was African American.

In Kanawha County, too, book protesters often insisted they were not racist.  Teacher and activist Karl Priest, for example, has insisted for decades that the conservative protesters embodied the true anti-racist position.

But evidence contradicts these conservative anti-racist claims.  In Pasadena, conservatives rallied political support based on opposition to race mixing in public schools.  Conservatives accused the progressive superintendent of raising taxes and dumbing down white schools by including students of other races.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

And in Kanawha County, as documentarian Trey Kay has shown, conservatives really did see the book protest as a race war.  Steve Horan remembered in 2010 that a rumor spread among white conservatives in 1974: African Americans planned to invade.  The men readied their guns.   Women and children took shelter in church basements.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

There seems to be at least some justification for journalists’ assumptions that “conservatism” stands staunchly opposed to racial integration in schools.

But it is also important to recognize the complexity of conservative attitudes toward race and schooling.  It is not enough to simply say that “conservatives” block school desegregation because they dislike black people.

The case of Kanawha County helps make this more complicated point.  Many of the conservative leaders of the protest, such as Karl Priest and Avis Hill, belonged to conservative churches with a thoroughly biracial membership.  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

And conservative leader Alice Moore built her anti-textbook arguments on the work of African American activist Stephen Jenkins.  Jenkins had argued that textbooks that included only violent writings by African Americans actually represented the true anti-black racism.  Those who wanted to oppose the depiction of African Americans as violent anti-American criminals, Jenkins argued, needed to oppose the wrong-headed push for “multiculturalism.”  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

Across the country, “conservative” anti-busing protesters made similar claims to be the true anti-racists.  In Boston, for example, as Ron Formisano has shown, “conservative” anti-busers in the 1970s accused “liberal” federal judge Arthur Garrity of being the true racist.  Garrity had ordered busing to achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools, yet he lived in the affluent lily-white enclave of Wellesley, where his children would attend all-white schools.  Who was the racist in that scenario?

Did conservatives oppose busing and forcible school desegregation?  In most cases, yes.

Will we understand conservatism in schooling if we explain that position as simple racism?  In most cases, no.

White conservatives seem, in many cases, to have been motivated by anti-black racism.  But in almost all cases, that racism was only one component of a complex conservatism that also included issues of school funding, textbook content, religious rights, classroom practice, and a host of other issues.

Calling it “racism” and walking away doesn’t do enough.  Ayres deserves credit for noting that leading conservatives often supported anti-racist policies.  Conservatives often insisted that they opposed forcible busing and forcible integration.  They did so as part of a complicated conservative worldview, one that looked toward the status quo–including but not by any means limited to the racial status quo–for support.

So did white conservatives hate black people?  Did conservatives oppose school desegregation out of disdain for non-whites?

In some cases, probably.  But it is not very useful to assume that such racist attitudes are the end of our discussion.  Rather, understanding the complex attitudes toward race among conservatives–as among Americans as a whole–requires a more careful understanding of a complex conservative ideology.

 

 

Does Loving the Bible Make Americans Racist?

Yesterday on GetReligion Terry Mattingly asked a hard question: “does anyone have any hard evidence that moral conservatives are more likely to be racists?”

Mattingly critiqued a pre-election story on NPR, in which David Cohen, a University of Akron political scientist, opined that President Obama’s race was a factor for many conservative voters.

Mattingly suggests issues such as abortion weigh more heavily on the decisions of “moral conservatives” than do issues of race.

The connection between white religious conservatives and racism is one I’ve been wrestling with lately in a book chapter I’m working on.  In the 1974 school controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia, white conservative protesters (usually) insisted they were not racist.  Yet their liberal/progressive opponents, including an investigating committee from the National Education Association, usually assumed that they were.

It was a generation ago, to be sure, but in the 1974 controversy, some book protesters did indeed seem to be motivated largely by anti-African American racism.  For instance, the local Ku Klux Klan held sympathy rallies for the conservative protesters.

But other conservative protesters presented what seems to me to be solid evidence for their anti-racist conservatism.  Many religious protesters, such as Karl Priest, Avis Hill, and Ezra Graley, noted the racial balance of their church communities, including African Americans in leadership roles.

More secular protesters such as Elmer Fike noted that conservatives voted in large numbers for a conservative African American candidate for the state legislature, while liberals did not.*

Many liberals dismiss all such conservative claims of anti-racism as mere window dressing.  As we’ve discussed here recently, there is a long tradition among conservatives of using coded language to express racist sentiments in an apparently non-racist way.

What would it take for conservative anti-racism to be taken seriously?  One comment on Mattingly’s essay noted a 2007 PhD dissertation by Inna Burdein at SUNY-Stony Brook, “Principled Conservatives or Covert Racists.”  In her study, Burdein concluded that social conservatives tend to privilege racial considerations, while economic conservatives did not.  In other words, Burdein found that white “moral conservatives”–what we’re calling Fundamentalist America–would tend not to vote for African American candidates.

I don’t think Mattingly would insist that all white “moral conservatives” would vote for an African American President.  Some white conservatives are likely motivated by racism, to some degree.  But I think Mattingly’s question is still very important.  It does not seem that NPR’s story consulted work such as Burdein’s.  Commentators such as David Cohen simply take for granted the preeminence of white racism in conservative politics.

*This claim is reproduced in James Hefley, Textbooks on Trial (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1976), pg. 171.

What Do Missourians REALLY Want?

Everyone interested in what we’re calling Fundamentalist America should be following Missouri’s Amendment 2.  The debate about the nature of religion in public schools and institutions gets right to the heart of many culture-war controversies.  But it appears that the amendment might pack a much heavier culture-war punch than it seems to.

There are plenty of places to go to catch up on the story.  ILYBYGTH has introduced the upcoming vote, discussed the results, and noted Catholic Bishops’ support for Amendment 2.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch offered a very helpful introduction in late July.  For anyone interested in the viewpoint of amendment supporters, a Baptist congregation in Odessa published an hour-long video of Representative Mike McGhee explaining his vision for the amendment, frankly and openly.

For those who don’t like clicking on stuff, here’s the story in a nutshell:  On August 7, 2012, Missouri voters overwhelmingly (83%) approved an amendment to their state constitution.  The amendment was promoted as a school-prayer amendment.  Supporters such as legislative sponsor Mike McGhee called it a clarification of the rights of religious people to pray in public, so long as their prayers did not disturb others.  McGhee claimed that such rights are often disrespected.   Opponents such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State insisted it was at best unnecessary, since such rights are already protected in the US Constitution.  At worst, opponents insist, this amendment threatens to undermine the barrier between church and state.

Given a closer look, however, this amendment does much more than clarify students’ rights to pray in public schools.  It does that, but the amended Constitution now includes two other rights for students.  These new rights go far, far beyond protecting the rights of public schoolchildren to pray quietly.  The new rights satisfy the long-standing desires of important constituencies in Fundamentalist America.  For all parents who have worried that their children might be taught unwholesome moral, sexual, or religious lessons in public schools, the Missouri Constitution now offers an easy escape route.

The first added phrase, “students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work,” opens the door for conservative families to include their beliefs in all parts of the school curriculum.  For example, creationist parents and students could now use their beliefs to answer questions about evolution.  This has long been a sticking point for creationists.  Consider the words of Avis Hill, a pastor from Kanawha County, West Virginia.  Hill rose to national prominence in 1974 when assumed a leadership role in a controversy over adopted textbooks.

From Trey Kay, “The Great Textbook War”

Hill told interviewers that his daughter was given a failing grade for her report on evolution.  According to the Reverend Hill, the young Miss Hill, fifth grader, told her teacher, “‘Mrs. So-and-So’—whose name I’ll not use—‘I’ll not give that report, and I’ll not read that book in class.’  She said, ‘I have a book I will read,’ and she opened her Bible—and I did not coach her because it didn’t bother me that much at that time—she opened her Bible, and she began in Genesis 1, ‘In the beginning God—‘ and the teacher failed her.” [Interviewed by James Moffett, included in Moffett’s Storm in the Mountains (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), pg. 90].

This sentiment echoes throughout Fundamentalist America.  Fear that students will be forced to learn evolution, or about the use of condoms, or about the moral ambiguities of modern life have long dominated conservative rhetoric about public education.  Missouri’s new Constitution fixes that perceived problem.

The second telling phrase in the new Constitution underlines the point.  “No student,” the amendment reads, “shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”  The implications are clear.  Sex ed, evolution ed, “situation ethics,” all have loomed large in the imagination of Fundamentalist America for generations.  This amendment guarantees that no student shall be forced to learn about such things.

Missouri’s amendment is not the only place to find this sentiment in political action.  New Hampshire’s state legislature recently passed a very similar law.  As I argue in my 1920s book,  conservatives have struggled to protect conservative religious students from public-school curricula since the 1920s.  In the last generation, the fight in Hawkins County, Tennessee, might have generated the most attention.   In that case, conservative religious parents ultimately lost their lawsuit against the school board.  Parents had claimed that anti-religious messages in school textbooks forced their children to learn messages inimical to their religious beliefs.  In 1987, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit disagreed.

Lawmakers in New Hampshire and now voters in Missouri found a way around this legal precedent.  However, it is not clear that Missouri voters knew just what they were voting for.  Consider the wording of the ballot measure:

“Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure:

“That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed;

“That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and

“That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

“It is estimated this proposal will result in little or no costs or savings for state and local governmental entities.

“Fair Ballot Language:

“A “yes” vote will amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that neither the state nor political subdivisions shall establish any official religion. The amendment further provides that a citizen’s right to express their religious beliefs regardless of their religion shall not be infringed and that the right to worship includes prayer in private or public settings, on government premises, on public property, and in all public schools. The amendment also requires public schools to display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

“A “no” vote will not change the current constitutional provisions protecting freedom of religion.

“If passed, this measure will have no impact on taxes.”

No mention of creationism, sex ed, condoms in schools, or other implications.  Nothing about guaranteeing students the right to opt out of any instruction they deem pernicious.  The ballot measure emphasized the amendment as a clarification of students’ rights to pray.  Yet the amendment itself makes the other meanings crystal clear.

Missouri voters approved the amendment by overwhelming margins.  But it appears that the implications of that ‘yes’ vote might not have been entirely apparent.  So what DO Missouri voters want?

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