We have just passed the 33rd anniversary of a vivid but painful incident in recent American history: April 5, 1976.
On that date, alongside Boston City Hall, a youthful resident of long-Irish-American South Boston was photographed trying to spear an older black gentleman with a flagstaff to which the Stars and Stripes were most painfully clearly attached.
The fact that 1976 was the Bicentennial year made it all the more poignant. In fact, on the very spot, on those very pavement stones, just exactly two months later, in July of that year, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip would review a contingent of Redcoat re-enactors in full 18th century dress uniforms. The whole thing took place just yards from the Old State House, where a black man, Crispus Attucks, was among those citizens killed by the fusillade fired by the Redcoat guard in what history came to call The Boston Massacre. Up the street a block and then left two blocks, Attucks is buried along with Sam Adams and other patriots (and, history being history, Mother Goose). The cemetery itself is just across the street from the Tremont Temple, where in the years just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – just a couple of years away from the first of his several woundings as a Union officer of the line – heard pro-abolition speakers. (Holmes, a remarkably resilient gentleman, would live,, wounds and all, until 1935, and serve as an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court in FDR’s first administration.) Lest We forget, or think that ‘history’ only extends back to the Series Finale of a favorite TV show.
The scene recorded for posterity in April of 1976 was the result of Boston’s ‘forced busing’ crisis. A Federal judge, fed up with what he saw as the city’s foot-dragging in the matter of bringing black neighborhood schools up to a par with white neighborhood schools, did Order that students from those black neighborhoods would be bused to other city neighborhood schools.
Many of the residents of those nieghborhoods were skeptical of the plan. The Irish-Americans of South Boston, a famously clannish –even tribal – bunch, inhabiting a peninsula neighborhood that went a long way toward recreating the insular conditions of their ancestral Emerald Isle, were especially upset.
In November of 2008, one Thomas Sugrue, professor of History and Sociology at U/Penn, in conjunction with a book* he had just written and that was about to be released, wrote an article entitled “It’s not the bus: it’s us”, published in ‘The London Review of Books’. I just got around to reading it (yes, one does get behind in one’s reading) and although I’ve mentioned this incident in other Posts it got me worked up all over again. So here goes.
The gravamen of Sugrue’s article, and book, is that the ‘classic’ Civil Rights movement – in the South lasting from the mid-1950s to 1965 – was only the first phase, and it was followed by a second phase, in the North, starting in the later 1960s. He’s got a good point there.
Hewing to the career-preserving line dictated by Political Correctness, however, he asserts essentially that the out-and-out leering racism of the South, captured by newsreel and TV cameras for the nation and the world to see, was matched by the far less overt and telegenic racism of Northern urban whites.
Hence, the article, like the book, seeks to demonstrate the subtle but not spectral racism of the Northerners, which he asserts was still as bad as anything the Southrons could dish out. And notihng else but that.
That’s where his theory and his schematic plan depart from reality (although in a mostly good cause).
Nobody can argue with the irritability and territoriality of the Irish-American brethren and sistern. Indeed they share a certain Celtic background with the Scots-Irish of an earlier migration who helped people the Southern and Appalachian regions of the country in the 18th century. And their disdain, in the Northern cities, for later arrivals such as the Italians and South-eastern Europeans in the very late 19th and very early 20th centuries is – locally – the stuff of legend.
But to characterize their opposition to ‘forced busing’ (as it was then called) as exclusively and only a clarion example of mulish, benighted racism is stretching things too much. And given that such an interpretation makes the ‘liberal’ impositions of the Democratic-controlled government of the 1970s assume the characteristics of Pure Righteousness … well, tires should be kicked, just a bit.
The photo, he notes rightly in the article, “was a reminder that, despite celebrations of its revolutionary glory and proclamations of national greatness, the country had not overcome its original sin of racism”. True enough indeed. And it is indeed an ‘original sin’. And a profound cause for meditation on that type of ‘sinfulness’ that, once embedded in a culture, bethumps the culture and its people long after the actual sinful activity has ceased. Selah.
I would even go so far as to limn a sketch of how that worked out, almost from the moment of the signing of the Voting Rights Act in the first days of July, 1965. Having risked their entire political control of the South by ‘doing the right thing’ and completing the work of the Civil War (a long century later), the Democrats were already edgy over LBJ’s prescient remark that this good deed would cost the Democrats the South “for a generation”. But then, within days, the urban black population of Watts, in Los Angeles, exploded into a days-long riot that (on top of everything else) brought to the fore a new black ‘voice – not the non-violent voice of King calling all of America to its original ideals, but rather a voice screaming for ‘revolution’, against ‘whitey’ and for a separatist ‘Black Pride’ that was led not by church-going black youth in shirt and tie but by angry young people who had read Mao’s Little Red Book and many of whom gained combat experience in Vietnam.
The Democrats were shocked, and quadruply so: they had not only ‘lost the South’, but now as well some sort of Godzilla-like monster of revolution had risen from the blast-zone of the ‘bomb’ they had detonated in a good and righteous cause: civil rights. And when they realized that they not only lost the Southern vote but also stood to ‘lose the black vote’ for which they had risked everything, and then realized on top of that that at the very best the American black ‘vote’ could only muster 10% of the national electorate … the Democrats decided to do two things.
First, they would double-down on meeting the ‘demands’ of the black advocates (who had arisen to ‘speak for’ the entire black citizenry) no matter what.
And second, they would start searching desperately to create fresh new voting blocs upon whose electoral (if not financial) support they could reliably count. Enter the budding feminist movement, representing in theory a whopping 51% of the electorate, and they too had a ‘revolution’ in mind.**
In the service of placating and ‘establishing’ their new ‘demographics’, the Democrats allowed themselves to tread some dark paths indeed. And then the Republicans, starting with Nixon, began to travel the same paths, vying first for those same demographics, and then – capitalizing on the discontent fomented by the ‘special treatment’ the Dems ladled out like election-day ‘cider’ to all of their new demographics – began with Reagan’s era to create their own demographic ‘bases’.
Twisting integrity and the Constitution into pretzels, both Parties have contributed energetically to the present sorry state of American public discourse and public maturity, and have made a bunch of pretty bad calls – foreign and domestic - at many junctures along the way.
And by this point, generations of young people have now grown up into adulthood, parenthood, even grand-parenthood, knowing nothing but the contorted and tortured flux that has marked American public life for more than thirty years.
So the ‘original sin’, which LBJ’s era sought to address, remains stubbornly afflicting Us. Even as We try to get beyond it. Can you say “Laocoon and his sons”?
Back to Boston and Sugrue.
Sugrue actually nails a gravid point: “The anti-busing movement saw the ubiquitous yellow school buses as a symbol of tyrannical social engineering”. Yes, they very much did. And even if in some cases or on some level that sense was tinged with racism, the insight was perfectly valid and capable of standing on its own. And should have been addressed.
Today, the public schools in all of the city neighborhoods are in parlous condition (with the occasional temporary stand-out), and this is so without taking into account the recent recession-depression that has strapped all government agencies of cash.
The judge might have used his authority to get the City to spend more money on the black neighborhood schools, had he realized the utter indispensability of neighborhood schools to the civic experience and even to civic cohesion and health. But the judge, in a paroxysm of that ‘macho’ posturing that seems to seduce so many ‘liberals’, insisted on calling out the troops: Tactical Patrol Forces, phalanxes of motorcycle escorts, helmets, riot batons and shields, and swirling clouds of blue lights … the new ‘liberal’ Order would show the lumpish peasants that it was here to stay … and to rule.
And the judge had the benefit of ‘philosophy’ on his side: the Harvard professor John Rawls had just – a couple of years before – unveiled his hodge-podge ‘philosophy’ that pretty much provided at least the semblance of a ‘cover’ for the ‘elites’ taking matters into their own hands, and did so by exhorting judges, especially, to do an end-run around the benighted citizenry and do what had to be done to achieve the progressive Millennium.
Sugrue goes in another direction: “The Manichean narrative – elitist social engineers versus long-suffering working-class whites – downplays everyday racism, marginalizes the Civil Rights activists and black parents who fought for decades against Boston’s separate and unequal schools …” Yes, but no.
“Everyday racism” is a deeply unpleasant thing, and serves to enhance neither the lives of the racists nor the lives of the racially-stigmatized; indeed, much the opposite.
But essentially ‘declaring war’ on ‘working class’ folk and on ‘whites’ … that was a rather too-quick resort to “the mattresses” that Sonny Corleone would have done, but not the Godfather. It’s a rare war indeed that either restores a status quo ante or replaces a specific offending entity without any negative consequences.
But what were the Dems, hastily redefining what it meant to be a ‘liberal’ government, to do? This way they could show their new ‘bases’ that the Party was indeed worth voting for, while – not just frosting on the cake – they could let ‘white, working class’ lumps know that there was a new marshal in Dodge. What was not to like?
Alas, a revolution that takes too long is going to get its tires kicked. And a war undertaken without sufficient awareness of the complexity of reaching objectives and the dynamics governing the many known and unknown variables in play or potentially in play … well, a war like that isn’t going to achieve more good than the damage it causes.
So today, in Boston, the city’s black neighborhoods are ravaged not by ‘racism’ but by the catastrophic results of a truly awefull synergy: the too-successful efforts of Ideological Feminism in its war on Marriage, Family, and Men has wrecked the interpersonal substrate upon which any communal foundations must rest. There are now so many murders – and of young teens killing other young teens or missing them and killing children – that the local paper of record no longer reports the neighborhood in which the most recent killing has taken place, for fear of contributing inappropriately to ‘the wrong impression’.
The schools, as aforementioned, are uniformly parlous, and parents who can afford to find alternative educational opportunities or move away – further exacerbating the dwindling of the tax base. As early as 6AM on a school morning, not only school buses but public transit are filled with inner-city junior-high and high-school age students, blearily starting their trek to whatever school they’re assigned to; they could be going to a school a few blocks from their home and getting some extra sleep (a good thing at that age), but no. And in the early afternoon they often melt away into the city’s core to ‘hang out’, because they have to pass through the core on their journey back ‘home’. And on such long trips, who wants to carry a lot of books?
And from Sugrue’s comment about “the Manichean narrative” We can see what he’s actually saying to his intended audience, the Correct-thinking elites: white, working class lumps are yesterday’s news, and ‘we’ elites were right and very clever to do what we did.
Yet their ‘war’ has resulted in disaster, just as the neocons’ more literal war has.
And clearly Sugrue subscribes to his own Manichean narrative, except that he’s reversed the polarity: the working-class are the ‘bad’ people, and the heroic elites are the children of light (think Mao's Cultural Revolution cadres waving the mauve flags of 'sensitivity' rather than the red banners of a more obvious revolution) . He’ll never be at a loss for faculty dinner-party invitations.
“In the years leading up to the busing crisis, the most progressive activists, policy-makers , and litigators [yup, that’s not a typo: lawyers who would force the issue in courts, ala Rawls] in the North had come to realize that the key to racial equality was opening up the suburbs and their exclusive school districts on a non-discriminatory basis.”
The Supreme Court prohibited that in Milliken, he states with a becoming honesty. But he’s simply laying the groundwork for the excuse by which he will wave away the catastrophe that has followed all that elite and progressive opinion of thirty-five years ago: “Northern school districts never really desegregated”. Well, but in the cities they did. Ah well, he infers, what we were really after was to redistribute the inner-city neighborhood students all over the metro areas; the city neighborhoods weren’t really the ‘key’ – you see. Ah. They were just collateral damage, then?
And if the metro regions, rather than the city neighborhoods, had “desegregated”, then all would be well? This, I say, is like listening to Army officers explain to each other why we ‘won’ Vietnam, except for the actual final outcome; except for that stubborn fact about the final outcome, things were done pretty well in concept and execution. Yah.
This is Sugrue’s and the progressives’ version of the ‘stab in the back’ – they would have ‘won’ if they hadn’t been undermined.
It had to come, some sort of stab-in-the-back excuse. Otherwise, folks might listen to the still-Sixties' rhetoric and ask: well, but you've been 'solving' this problem for 35 or 40 years and what has been the result? And no Correct-thinking elite wants to have to face up to that question. 'Correct intentions' and the trusty stab-in-the-back can be the only resort of the elites. One thinks of the negligent and arrogant Denethor, Lord of Gondor, suddenly discovering the vast assault army of Orcs besieging his city; his only (self-serving) thought is: My erstwhile allies have betrayed me. (But there will be no Gandalf for Us who will with some magic and a huge reservoir of maturity and skill pull Our chestnuts out of the fire; like a team whose vaunted batting order has let it down, We shall have to step up to the plate and save Our own game.)
But he gloats a tad: “Anti-busers’ efforts to preserve their racially homogenous neighborhoods and school failed”. Yes, they did. Perhaps they saw or at least sensed that the whole progressive ‘war plan’ was flawed and would lead not to success but to even worse wrack and ruin. But they did lose the struggle to preserve their neighborhoods. Now, with busing having greatly helped undermine the neighborhoods, and Ideological Feminism having helped undermine families and marginalize fathers and turn millions of inner-city young women loose, with kids, into the ‘creative destruction’ of a globalizing economy, and with fatherless youths contributing to more violence which in turn makes them fodder for the prison-industry and the domestic violence registries and offender registries and … well, it’s a scenario only a man-hating anti-democratic revolutionary cadre could really love ... or at least one with a steady income, ‘professional’ status, and a nanny.
And as so often and eerily happens in this sort of thing, the fomenters of the unsuccessful 'war' now do indeed 'blame the victims', those hapless folks whose lives and entire cultural ethos have been destroyed by the war's failed but vigorous 'initiatives'.
I’ll add this: the continued economic survival of this country now depends not on Our solvency (We are by any measure bankrupt) but by the fact that the Americans still have the most politically stable government on the planet. Nobody in the Beltway is going to want to have any of these old tires kicked, because it’s not inconceivable that the citizenry – black, white, and otherwise – will get so mad that they might just want to “t’ro da bums out”, and no Beltway or state pol or ‘advocate’ or lobbyist really wants to contemplate having to earn a living in “the dread private sector”, especially not nowadays. So it will be a matter of national security that things keep on staggering along and the same old ‘elites’ keep taking whacks at the common weal while collecting a nice check.
When ‘national security’ and ‘job security’ can be so seamlessly meshed, then things aren’t going to be changed constructively.
So at this point I’ll borrow perhaps the one and only point on which I agree with the late Propaganda Minister of the Grossdeutches Reich: “Nun, Volk, steh’ auf!” “Now, People, stand up!”
It’s a sentiment Jefferson could love.
*The book is entitled “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North”.
**Thus in great but not complete part the 'welding' of this nation's interest to the government of Israel.