Clashing Memories: Critical Discrepancies in the Accounts of America’s Recent Racial Past


BY Paul Gottfried

Even the hardest-nosed conservatives have been suckered by a vision of American racial harmony.

A new version of American twenty-first century history has taken hold on the Right. According to this narrative, American race relations were improving through the Bush years, only to be roiled by the election (and especially the re-election) of Barack Obama. Democrats revived dying racial animosity to divide the electorate with the result that the country is now disastrously polarized. The new racial activists have, allegedly, betrayed the authentic colorblind vision of the civil rights movement of the sixties, as embodied by Martin Luther King, Jr.

For example, after a generally accurate description of how our “culture is in collapse,” Victor Davis Hanson offered this lament for the vanishing recent past: “Why, when so-called non-white ethnicities and races were achieving parity with or exceeding the majority population in per capita income and when racial intermarriage was commonplace did we blow up the values of the civil rights movement and revert to precivilizational tribalism?” I find this statement, to say the least, problematic. Clearly Hanson and I see the path by which we reached our collapsing culture and corrupted polity quite differently. Unlike him, I do not recall a recent golden age of racial harmony brought about by his ideal civil rights movement (assuming, perhaps counterfactually, that there was only one such movement, and it reflected VDH’s ideals).

Racial turmoil has roiled this country for decades; and most of the social problems that fueled them have stayed around and grown worse. A multitude of civil rights laws and directives have been enacted at the federal, state, and local levels to empower leftist activists, throw tax money at disintegrating, crime-ridden black communities, and more recently, raise the self-esteem of black racial activists at the expense of whites and Asians.

None of these measures, however, has improved the social condition of most American blacks or lessened their animosity toward the white majority. To believe this situation was significantly different 20 or 30 years ago because of “the values of the civil rights movement” is to overlook the longevity of problems that the civil rights revolution did little to change. Affirmative action programs go back to the sixties and started soon after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. After the passage of that landmark legislation, government officials made clumsy attempts to guarantee that business and social transactions were free of anti-black and anti-feminine bias. The result was set asides for blacks and women, a category of humanity who also became a protected group under the 1964 act. Black nationalist manifestations of the crusade against discrimination, moreover, were abundantly evident in the sixties, which saw the rise of the black power movement. Although this movement did not poison our national politics immediately, black racism eventually became integral to the Democratic Party’s national coalition.

The reason for these intractable race tensions has been the failure to address a social pathology that has accompanied the civil rights revolution, the disintegration of a responsible, self-sustaining black community. Thomas Sowell properly noted that blacks made far greater socio-economic strides from 1940 to 1960 than during the subsequent civil rights era, which saw massive social breakdown. Blacks who moved into Southern and then Northern cities encountered serious difficulties in their new surroundings. In these cities there was a diminishing number of jobs for unskilled labor but a never-ending supply of drugs together with other temptations of modern urban life. Never-ending protests against white racism and the favoring of black politicians who specialized in race hustling, without fixing social problems, became the long-range response of those living in these shattered, crime-ridden communities.

Sowell called further attention to facts that were already obvious to Daniel P. Moynihan, Edward Banfield, and other eminent sociologists during the civil rights era. Giving in to angry people blaming their social problems on “whitey” or “the Man” has not created a more harmonious society. Among the most noticeable long-run beneficiaries of the civil rights revolution have been race-hustlers like Maxine Waters, Nancy Pelosi, Jamaal Bowman, and Reverend Al, the academic directors of “white privilege” studies, and the recipients of DEI funds provided by virtue-signaling corporate capitalists.

Transgendered activists have also been the beneficiaries of a movement that has been driven forward by the administrative state, and which has enjoyed the support of culturally radicalized media, woke capitalists, and bourgeois-hating educators. That this movement has embraced ever more imaginative categories of designated victims seems in retrospect to be fully understandable. We are looking at an incremental revolution that has gone on for decades.

One may be allowed to offer this generalization without condoning the justified grievances of blacks who lived under Jim Crow. Like our civil rights movement, revolutionaries usually start with just causes, but this doesn’t mean we should applaud the results of their activities. In eighteenth-century France, peasants endured the imposition of servile labor while the French professional classes suffered annoying social restrictions. But recognizing that situation does not require me to approve of the bloodbath caused by the French Revolution.

It is reasonable to notice that what starts out as a just protest can turn very bad; and it is equally reasonable to assume a possible connection between the beginning and end of this development. Burke was among those who grasped this notion of a derailed protest in his Reflections, a work that contains both a famous diatribe against the French Revolution and proposals for what the ancien régime could have done to address social grievances in a timely fashion. Criticizing ominous upheavals does not signify acceptance of the situation that revolutionaries claim to be rectifying. But a proper general assessment does demand that I notice the deep-seated nature of a disaster that continues to engulf us.

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Back in the 1950’s we had banks and savings & loans.
My parents owned a small rental property on Bonsallo in Los Angeles then.
They put 25% of every rent paid on time and in full in the renter’s savings & loan account to be used toward their down payment on a home.
It worked well.
There were celebrations when families got to buy a home.
BTW, about 1/2 of the renters were black, the other half white.
The Watts Riots only about 6 years after my parents sold that building came as a shock to us, living on the border between Watts and Lynwood.
LBJ’s welfare system’s destruction of black families happened fast.
I used to leave school on my bike, ride into Watts and play with black and white kids as well as shop just days before the riots broke out.
History is being rewritten as fast as lefty revisionists can.
And the younger people are buying all those lies.

Clearly Hanson and I see the path by which we reached our collapsing culture and corrupted polity quite differently. Unlike him, I do not recall a recent golden age of racial harmony brought about by his ideal civil rights movement (assuming, perhaps counterfactually, that there was only one such movement, and it reflected VDH’s ideals).

Maybe calling his assessment a “golden age” is a bit hyperbolic. It is a fact that, compared to the racial conditions created by the left today (EVERYTHING is racial and racist) it WAS a golden age. It is an undeniable fact that blacks, as well as every other race and ethnicity were enjoying a far less racist atmosphere, something the left seemed to simply be unable to abide. Look at how many instances where racism played NO part that the left did all they could to make it 100% racial and racist.

Interracial marriage was restrained by more than just WHITE prejudice. We should also take note of the increasing level of attacks on Asians by blacks. No doubt blacks have a little more incentive towards racism than what whites had 100 year ago, but it’s not “payback time”… it’s get over it time. The people who committed the racist attacks and those who suffered them are long dead. Damn the first and bless the latter, but nothing we do today will change that. We CAN learn from it.