American Culture

John Roberts and Jim Crow for a new millennium

The countries of the New World were, for the most part, founded on the twin crimes of racism and genocide.

Europe was effectively out of land, the dominant wealth creation engine of the time, and there was plenty of it in the New World, that is if you weren’t particularly squeamish about how you got it. The Europeans and later the Americans decided on the most efficient mechanism, genocide. Then came a new problem, for unlike European fields which had been tilled for centuries, the land in the New World was rough, wooded and rocky. It would have taken generations to transform it into a productive asset. Again, the European-Americans chose the most efficient alternative–forcing someone else to clear it for them.

Most of the countries in this hemisphere have spent the last two hundred years trying to move past those crimes, with varying levels of success as the riots in Brazil and this week’s horrendous decision on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 both illustrate.

The question, at least for me, is how upset to get over all this. Is this my fight? I haven’t seen any mass protests or even loud howls of outrage from the African-American community. At the end of the day, rights are not given so much as taken. By the end of the Civil War, the majority of the troops were African-American, over 200,000 men in all. Blacks got their rights in the ’60s when hundreds of thousands took to the street. Blacks in the south don’t seem particularly upset over the Roberts decision, or if they are, it’s not making the news.

Perhaps this is no big deal anyway, but just part of the process and par for the course. Over the last two centuries, progress in race matters has tended to move in fifty year cycles–two steps forward, one and a half steps back.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.

However, after a short burst of prosperity for blacks, the white establishment systematically went about rolling back many of the gains achieved as a result of the war. Between 1890 and 1910, ten of eleven southern states passed laws effectively disenfranchising blacks, e.g. poll taxes and literacy tests. In 1890, the idea of seperate but equal emerged, although as someone who grew up in the segregated south, I can tell you that the facilities afforded African-Americans were not even close to equal. In 1913, almost exactly fifty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the first southern-born president since the war took office. Woodrow Wilson set about embedding the racial discrimination pervasive in the legal codes of the South into those of the nation.

A little more than fifty years after Wilson, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed. And now, forty eight years later, Justice Roberts has emasculated it, relying on spurious precedent. (If you haven’t read the excellent S&R post on this by Wufnik, you should.) It is Jim Crow for a new millenium.

1863 – forward. 1913 – backward. 1965 – forward. 2013 – backward.

Just like a pendulum, do we swing back and forth on this? If that’s what’s happening here, it’s great because the pendulum is swinging a little farther toward fairness with each cycle. It’s certainly more comfortable to think of this as a cyclical blip than a permanent setback. If this is true and it is not just calenderial coincidence, that means we have reached the nadir and better times are a coming. An optimist would say episodes like Paula Deen show that mindsets are changing, and for the better (although her book is reportedly #1 on Amazon).

I hope that’s the case, although I don’t find it all that comforting. Just as they did a hundred years ago, racists and their sympathizers are trying to undo progress. Do we have to wait fifty years to get back to where we were a few weeks ago?

7 replies »

  1. Hello Otherwise, what is your basis for the statement, “By the end of the Civil War, the majority of the troops were African American, over 200,000 men in all.”? From what I see 10% of the Union Army was Blacks at the end of the war. http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war/

    As to the rest, yes agreed, historically change comes slowly in waves with retreat between crests. Interestingly current census figures show the USA to be 72% Caucasian, but depending on how one counts Latinos that figure could already be under 50%.

    • Frank

      Have to dig it out. Found that stat while researching my new book.

      I’m pretty sure the 10% number is wrong. In all, about 2.2 mil served on the Union side during the 4 years of the war, with terms of enlistment ranging from 3 months to 3 years. The ratio of whites to blacks was very high at the beginning, when everyone thought the war was going to be short and before emancipation, and much lower at the end.

      I suspect the 10% is simply the total number of African Americans divided by the total number of those who served, not the ratio of troops at the end. So it’s a four year average, not a final year snapshot. Yes, that’s what the article you cite says, but I don’t think it’s right.

      • Those in the United States Colored Troops, which comprised 163 regiments (some sources say 175), amounted to 10 percent of total Union troops at the end of the Civil War. William A. Gladstone’s (1996) excellent text on the USCT indicates there were 178,895. There were also 18,000 black soldiers in the U.S. Navy (Civil War Trust, No Date). The Civil War Trust also indicates that 180,000 black soldiers served. There is no credible source on Civil War, Reconstruction, Antebellum history let alone any race studies which put the number that high.

        Furthermore, “I don’t think it’s right,” is not an argument. The burden of rejoinder is now with the posts original author. We need some factual basis to challenge the ten percent number. If the U.S. Archives, the Civil War Trust, and Mr. Gladstone (PBS also reports 180,000) are all wrong, then you have just stumbled upon the greatest idea in Civil War and race history.

        In the Navy enlisted ranks, 30,000 blacks had served by war’s end. This was out of 118,00 (Department of Defense, 1985). The DOD (1985) indicates that that percentage was much higher than it was for the Army, meaning the percentage at war’s end could not have been higher than 25.42 percent. There’s simply no calculation to get at this “most” idea. Please check your facts before completing this book.

        • Sigh. Please pay attention.

          Yes, there were approximately 200,000 colored troops at the end of the war. You’re exhaustingly proving a point on which we already agree.

          It’s not the numerator but the denominator that’s the problem. The question is how many total troops there were at the end. 10% implies it was around 2 million, but that’s not right because that’s the number of total troops who served during the war. Mr. Gladstone probably did his arithmetic wrong. He divided 200,000 by the total number of troops who served during all four years, not by those who were serving at the end. Your Navy stat has the same problem.

          The question is not “How many blacks had served BY war’s end divided by how many total BY war’s end?” But rather “How many blacks were serving AT war’s end divided by how many total AT war’s end?”

          Think of it this way, if you met 100 union troops between 1861 and 1865, 10 of those would have been black. However, if you met 100 soldiers on June 22, 1865, then 50 of those would have been black.

          Do you understand the difference? Sorry to be pedantic, but innumeracy and illiteracy irritate me.

          I think my source was Katz, but will check it when I am next in my office.

  2. It would be nice to think no, we won’t have to wait fifty years, that it can be reversed in the next election cycle. We’ll see.

  3. Your pedantic comments are misplaced. Unfortunately, you’ve failed to respond to the argument I presented. In fact, it seems clear that I address why both equations are wrong. The evidence I presented suggests that you are wrong by the equation you have chosen. That’s precisely the point. The DOD analysis directly refutes your claim using the analysis you deem appropriate. Please pay attention to the argument being made against you because it assumes your argument, which was clear when you responded to Frank. It seems that you’re conflating a number of time periods and statistical formulas. The evidence I present suggests that blacks were not more than 50 percent (far less actually) of the armed forces at the beginning and at the end of the war. Innumeracy and illiteracy are indeed annoying. I hope you’ll challenge them instead of embracing them in your next post.