Those of us of a certain age can remember, with a little effort, when America was different, when white male privilege, though it wasn’t called that, was taken for granted, when father knew best, when African Americans (then called Blacks or Negroes) were regarded as unredeemable except for a very few exceptions, like George Washington Carver. Indigenous Americans were understood as an irresolvable noble tragedy, and women were best when pregnant and in the kitchen – and even better, when they didn’t vote. All that began to change not long after World War II, when significant portions of the population began to support legislation and policy initiatives moving toward racial and cultural equity.
There were glimmers of change much earlier, during the Progressive Era, which, in addition to women’s suffrage (1919), saw the beginnings of federal protection for workers on the job, pure food and drug legislation, the settlement house movement, some regulation of banking, and direct election of U.S. senators (rather than election by state legislatures, as originally provided in the Constitution), with many others.
Then, with the New Deal of the 1930s, change accelerated with Social Security, with its unemployment compensation and aid to widows and orphans, protection of bank deposits and more regulation of banking, and also securities, federal guarantee of the right of labor to bargain collectively for wages and working conditions, recognition of the right of Native Americans to reclaim stolen land, and other changes. But although the chief beneficiaries of these reforms were poor and disadvantaged Americans, minorities were still heavily discriminated against.
The major reforms following the war came from the executive and the judiciary. In 1947, President Truman integrated the U.S. Armed Forces by executive order. Then in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court moved in Brown v. Board of Education to integrate public education, ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The next year, the Court ordered states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
The decision was a full-scale assault on white power and privilege, and while it was supported by a significant portion of the population, resistance to attempts to implement the Court’s order, much of it riotous and armed, was an indication of the level of division in the society and a harbinger of future conflict. After the Montgomery bus boycott, the march at Selma, Alabama, the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. (250,000 people gathered on the National Mall) and the assassination of President John Kennedy, Congress, under the leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter aimed at freeing minorities, but African Americans in particular, from intimidation of their right and opportunity to vote. In 1969, Congress adopted the National Environmental Policy Act, providing enforcement for protection of the people’s natural resources. The same year members of the American Indian Movement began a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, and in 1972 took over the Interior Department building in Washington, D.C., for six days.
Reaction to these reshapings of American culture were severe and have been persistent. The photos of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus preventing the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High School there and Govs. George Wallace and Ross Barnett barring the doors of their state universities to students attempting to register are iconic. President Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” continued by President Reagan, using coded phrases such as “states’ rights” to seduce white voters to the Republican Party, is legendary.
Here in Alaska, historian Ross Coen has shown that courts found the 1945 Anti-Discrimination to be unenforceable, and in any case, historian Terrence Cole noted that the act did not necessarily change the hearts and minds of Alaskans. Not well remembered is the fierce state opposition to the Native claims settlement before Gov. Bill Egan was elected in 1970.
Bloomberg Opinion writer Jonathan Bernstein reminded recently that through most of its history, the U.S. was closer to institutionalized autocracy than to real democracy, and that before 1965 the American claim to exceptionalism was shaky at best. The election of Barack Obama and the forecast by the U.S. Census that whites will become a minority in 2045 sustain the assault on white power and privilege.
In the scope of time, the 200-odd years of the American experiment with democracy is not long, particularly when compared to the preceding 25 or so millennia when human culture was characterized by autocracy. Equity is a hard concept to embrace and implement. It only succeeds as those who believe in it call out those who don’t, and persist in pursuing it, regardless of the odds.
Steve Haycox is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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