May 2005 Archives

My Latest Rant

Op-Ed Contributor
Southern Exposure
New York Times

Published: November 19, 2005
Athens, Ga.
IN 1964, when the blood and terror of Freedom Summer prompted many Americans to condemn the South as backward and bigoted, the historian Howard Zinn struck a nerve with his suggestion that "the nation reacts emotionally to the South precisely because it sees itself there." Now, as Americans rebuild from the wreckage and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they see another portrait in time, one that tells us much about what has and hasn't changed in the South in recent years, as well as about what the South can still tell the rest of the nation about itself.
At the very least, Hurricane Katrina put the lie to a generation's worth of ballyhoo about the newfound prosperity of the Sunbelt South. It showed us not only the impoverished and immobile masses of New Orleans, but the shack-dwelling, hand-to-mouth lives of thousands of others within the three-state swath of its hellish destruction. Here the disaster laid bare the shackling legacy of generations of pursuing industry through promises of low-wage, nonunion labor and minimal taxation and the correspondingly inadequate investment in public education, health and social welfare in the South.
Many of the places leveled by the hurricane were one-industry towns that had been reduced to no-industry towns when low-paying, tax-exempted, union-free employers repaid their hospitality by heading east or farther south where even cheaper labor and lower taxes awaited them. If Sherman originated urban renewal in Atlanta, Hurricane Katrina may have accomplished small-scale urban removal along the Gulf Coast, considering the number of towns that will likely never be rebuilt.
Even before the hurricane, more than two-thirds of the poverty-level families with children in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama fell into the "working poor" category. This figure is pretty much standard across the Old Confederacy, meaning that a great many Southerners beyond the physical reach of the storm would also be at the mercy of any such catastrophe of similar proportions. However, the same might be said for the almost equally prevalent working poor in such decidedly un-Southern locales as Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where folks have been laid low by wholesale outsourcing of jobs and economic policies that have left real wages stagnant and a social safety net in ever greater disrepair.
No Americans have had more experience with burden-bearing than Southerners, white and black. In this they have been well served by traits they exhibited repeatedly in dealing with Hurricane Katrina, especially their willingness to suffer extreme hardship and even death rather than sever their enduring ties to place, family and community.
Indeed, while Katrina may have bared the lie behind the New South's supposed prosperity, it has also highlighted a remarkable shift in racial attitudes. The small towns throughout the hurricane area where the rabidly segregationist Citizens' Councils once flourished produced some striking scenes of black and white Southerners in physical and emotional embrace, commiserating about what they had lost and sharing what they had left.
As community after community across the South opened its arms to the displaced, small-town papers were awash in stories about middle-class whites who had obviously made homeless and penniless evacuees the first black guests ever to sit at their tables and sleep on their sheets. These breakthroughs might seem especially emblematic of change in Southern white racial attitudes, but my guess is that there were a lot of these "firsts" registered as well in homes above the Mason-Dixon line where Hurricane Katrina victims found shelter
Hurricane Katrina should also have demonstrated to skeptical blue-staters that the South's vaunted religiosity amounts to more than a convenient vehicle for political manipulation of the ignorant, unthinking masses. Black and white survivors told story after story of reciting the Lord's Prayer or the 23rd Psalm as the storm raged around them, and though left penniless, homeless and uninsured, they expressed both gratitude and absolute confidence that the Lord would protect and provide.
If the Hurricane Katrina experience reveals that the South remains in many ways what Mr. Zinn described as a "marvelously useful" mirror where other Americans can see some of their nation's most egregious flaws magnified, it also suggests that in looking southward these days they should recognize some of its most admirable virtues writ large as well.

Legal Aid by James C. Cobb Only at TNR Online

The recent flood of admiring farewell tributes to Rosa Parks offers a sharp contrast to the generally gloomy tone of last year's fiftieth anniversary assessments of the significance of Brown v. Board of Education. In keeping with the prevailing tendency throughout the academy to emphasize the agency of the masses, over the last decade or so, many historians have made grassroots activism in the face of local hostility and national indifference the overriding theme of their interpretations of the Civil Rights movement. At the same time, other scholars and legal experts have questioned the overall importance of the Supreme Court in helping either to inspire the crusade for racial equality or to secure its overall goals. Taken together, these trends seem almost to suggest a historical view of the Civil Rights movement as less a collective than a competitive enterprise--where the significance of the "bottom-up" initiatives of Parks and others is pitted against the "top-down" mandates of the Court.
This matter is of more than historical relevance. A week after Rosa Parks died, President Bush nominated conservative judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, further stoking an already heated debate about the Court's potential impact on the social and political battles of our own time. In recent years, many liberals, frustrated with the rightward tilt of both the high Court and the courts in general, have despaired of looking to the judiciary as either a vehicle or guardian of progressive reform. Instead, they emphasize grassroots organizational strategies aimed at generating the democratic pressures needed to promote their goals and preserve their gains. Such an approach is congruent with a reading of the Civil Rights movement that plays up the role of activists like Rosa Parks and plays down the role of Brown and other judicial mandates. Yet the key to a fuller historical understanding of the civil rights struggle lies not in what Parks and the Court accomplished separately--but rather in what each achieved with the support of the other.
In discounting the influence of the Brown decision, Gerald Rosenberg of the University of Chicago contends that the Warren Court was merely caught up in a historical current "but contributed little to it." World War II, he argues, had clearly exposed the blatant hypocrisy of sending American troops to fight illiberalism abroad while continuing to tolerate it at home; and as NAACP membership soared, black veterans returned home demanding an immediate end to racial discrimination. While some critics are reluctant to credit Brown for energizing the Civil Rights movement, others are not at all hesitant to effectively blame it for many of the movement's shortcomings, citing everything from voluntary resegregation to the destruction of neighborhood schools to the collapse of affirmative action as, in the words of Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, "current manifestations of Brown's failures." Once the disappointment and fears of the present have been read into a past where the Court has been reduced to an ineffective ally, it is easy enough to project them into a future where the judicial system looms as a permanent adversary. Hence, even as arch-conservatives such as Justice Antonin Scalia argue for scrapping judicial review, no less a liberal than Georgetown law professor (and occasional TNR Online contributor) Mark Tushnet has also suggested "taking the Constitution away from the courts" by making Congress responsible for the constitutionality of its own actions. To boost his case, Tushnet cites Brown as evidence that judicial action has not been all that effective in bringing about change "on behalf of those who lack political power."

As a historian, my first concern with these critical assessments is that they underestimate both the path-breaking legal implications and the emotionally galvanizing influence of Brown. If World War II weakened white southerners' attachments to Jim Crow, there was little indication of it in their outraged and occasionally violent responses to the Supreme Court's invalidation of the whites-only Democratic primary in 1944. Indeed, the familiar maxim that the Supreme Court follows election returns--or at the very least majority sentiment--did not apply when Brown came down in 1954. Two years earlier, neither party had exactly made civil rights a priority in its push for the White House; and enough Southern whites had felt so confident of GOP nominee Dwight Eisenhower's indifference to the issue that five southern states had fallen into Republican hands. Surveys also indicated at the time that only a negligible percentage of Americans thought race was the most serious national problem. In fact, the absence of anything resembling a groundswell of support in the North for strict and speedy enforcement of the Brown decree suggests that the Court actually had more assurance of a positive response from northern whites when it validated segregation in 1896 than when it struck it down in 1954.
To be sure, even the most casual student of the Civil Rights movement should understand that dramatic, widespread progress toward making racial integration a reality throughout American life did not come until black activists took to the streets and lunch counters to demand it. To suggest, however, that Brown did not help to inspire such activism is to dismiss Martin Luther King's judgment in 1958 that the ruling had "brought hope to millions of disinherited Negroes who had formerly dared only to dream of freedom." If this means that Brown raised hopes that would not be fully realized, it surely does not follow, contra Ogletree, that a simple ruling against legalized segregation should be held responsible for everything the much broader, open-ended campaign for racial equality failed to achieve.
The ultimate lesson of Brown for our own time, or any other, is that while grassroots activism is frequently necessary to spur social advancement, the courts are often necessary too. Tushnet's proposal for moving away from judicial review implies considerable confidence in Congress. However, that body's general indifference toward racial injustice from the end of Reconstruction until the Civil Rights movement garnered widespread popular support nearly a century later hardly constitutes an inspiring record of responsiveness to the needs of those who lack political clout and the resources and expertise to lobby effectively on their own behalf. On what basis, historical or contemporary, should we put all our faith in the legislative process to safeguard the interests and safety of the homeless, the incarcerated, and the detained? For that matter, what reason have any of us to grant such leeway to the folks who tossed our fundamental civil protections out the window by rolling over, not once but twice, for the Patriot Act?
Having graduated from an all-white high school eleven years after the Supreme Court declared all-white schools unconstitutional, I am well aware that Brown was hardly a fast-acting remedy for racial injustice--and clearly, by itself, it was far from a perfect or complete one either. Still, the Brown decision represented a dramatic attempt to take one segment of the white population not just farther than it wanted to go but farther than the majority of the remaining white population wanted to force it to go at the time. Neither our admiration for Rosa Parks and hundreds of others whose names and faces we may never know nor our anxieties about contemporary judicial threats to liberal achievements and initiatives should blind us to the reality that, like most significant progressive advances in our nation's history, the Civil Rights movement must be understood not simply in terms of the relative importance of forces that arose from below or descended from above but in terms of how, when, and why those forces came together. Parks herself once said that, because of Brown, "African Americans believed that at last there was a real chance to change the segregation laws." She seemed to understand that in America would-be reformers might sometimes need a boost from the judiciary. And they still do.

KATRINA: THE AFTERMATH: Disaster reflects poor's isolation
James C. Cobb - For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, September 11, 2005

With public consciousness saturated with scenes and stories of the suffering in New Orleans and the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11 at hand, efforts to link these two tragedies are coming thick and fast. For the most part, however, these discussions seem to focus on our government's apparent failure to learn much since 2001 about how to respond to such megadisasters.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all the finger-pointing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, et al., a far more damning systemic failure has been washed up by the high water in New Orleans.

If Sept. 11 showed us how terrifying it is to deal with alien ideologues who are prepared to lose everything for what they believe, the debacle in New Orleans offered what should be an equally unsettling portrait of alienated Americans who believe that they have nothing to lose. For years, both liberals and conservatives have been loath to entertain the notion that our great land of opportunity has produced a permanent underclass whose members can move neither up or --- as New Orleans demonstrates so vividly --- out, and have little reason to think that tomorrow, if it comes at all, will be any better than today.

Fear not: You have not been sucked into a 1960s flashback. I am not about to defend the thugs who shot at medics and rescue workers in New Orleans or to suggest that wading through waist-deep water lugging TVs or microwaves is a form of legitimate social protest. Many of these folks might well have done the very same thing even before Katrina showed up if they had thought they could get away with it. And that, in fact, is precisely my point.

Like it or not, what we can't help but see in New Orleans we could also see under similar circumstances in most major cities in the country, and a lot of lesser ones as well. It is especially tempting for Democrats to blame this appalling evidence of social disintegration on the Reagan-Bush crowd's devotion to the "haves" and indifference to the "have-nots." Others believe our efforts to help the down and out pull themselves up and in have actually made matters worse by substituting a feeling of self-entitlement for a sense of self-reliance.

In either case, Americans at large cannot simply chalk up the post-Katrina meltdown in New Orleans to the failure of our social welfare system. Our own behavior as private citizens also deserves some scrutiny. For example, our obsession with unlimited access to relatively cheap fuel for our ravenous, oversized vehicles has made it more politically expedient to sacrifice lives and squander financial resources in the name of a stable democratic order in the Middle East than to work for the same goal in the middle of many of our own cities.

I'm guessing that the tradition of political participation is not a whole lot stronger among the displaced and dysfunctional in New Orleans than it is in Baghdad. I'm also guessing that if this changed dramatically, the Republicans would be frantically erecting even higher barricades around the ballot boxes and some Democrats might also be a lot more apprehensive than they would like you to believe.

No strangers to travail, the great majority of New Orleans' dispossessed have endured their ordeal with less complaint and more restraint than anyone might reasonably expect. Still, in cities like Atlanta, Birmingham, Houston and others that are sheltering large numbers of evacuees, there is growing concern that among the thousands of truly distressed and deserving might be some of the looters and shooters who drove one frustrated Louisiana official to call for military personnel who "know how to shoot to kill."

In a nation with the world's most glaring disparities in wealth, for some the first reaction to a Sept. 11 or a New Orleans is "What will this do to the market?" Is it really surprising that "compassionate conservatism" yields so quickly to "lock and load" or that the current administration's best prospects for creating new jobs may well lie in law enforcement?

In contrast to a White House response that has made the handling of the war in Iraq seem brilliant by comparison, the outpouring of private generosity has been as swift and enormous as Katrina itself. This wave of attention and caring will likely recede in tandem with the floodwaters, however, unless we are willing to acknowledge that the terrifying scenes we have witnessed in New Orleans represent more than the fallout from a once-a-century weather calamity or Washington's incompetence in dealing with it.

When we look at the tragedy of "the City That Care Forgot" what we should really see is the tragedy of a nation that forgot to care.

> James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. His most recent book is "Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity."

Monthly Archives

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from May 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

March 2005 is the previous archive.

October 2005 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.