How the Powerful Co-Opt Racial Justice to Amass More Power (Part I)

By Teju Ravilochan

A New Series on the Internal Work of Justice

On a recent podcast episode of On Being, Krista Tippet reflected on growing up in the sixties, when the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 were passed. Though these laws transformed our country, she wondered why, more than 50 years later, the scenes in our streets and the discussions in our media today are so similar to what they were at that time. She says it seems like, “we changed the law, but we didn’t change ourselves.”

Why? Krista Tippet’s guest on this recent episode, therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem, writes, “While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies. If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict needs to be resolved.”

What is the battlefield and the conflict inside our bodies that Resmaa Menakem speaks of? At GatherFor, we are researching and publishing a series of articles to explore this question, largely because we see our work connected to the inquiry of shifting mainstream narratives, relationships to power, and returning to an ancient idea that community can be a part of our collective healing. We’re writing these posts for our own education, so that we can play a role in this work.

“While we see anger and violence in the streets of our country, the real battlefield is inside our bodies. If we are to survive as a country, it is inside our bodies where this conflict needs to be resolved.” — Resmaa Menakem

Today’s post: How the Powerful Co-Opt Racial Justice to Amass More Power

If as Resmaa Menakem says, “it is inside our bodies where this conflict needs to be resolved,” what is this conflict? What does it mean to resolve it? One clue may come from Ibram Kendi, who writes in a July 4, 2019 post in The Atlantic: “America is the story of powerful people struggling to keep their disproportionate amount of power from people who are struggling for the power to be free.”

This external struggle for power may reflect a deeper conflict inside our bodies that will be the subject of my next post. But today, this post explores if there is any merit to Kendi’s claim.

Because my parents were immigrants from India, they couldn’t tell me all that much about American history (though this may be true for most Americans). The image I had of our country was shaped by the knowledge that they came here for greater opportunity, along with what I learned in the suburban, nearly all-white schools I attended in Colorado. I got the impression that our government sincerely wanted to serve the people. It was by the people, for the people. The British were unfairly taxing the colonies without representation, so we fought a revolution in the name of freedom and became America. Our textbooks acknowledged that we weren’t perfect, but our system was built to advance us toward equality. So when we did the wrong thing as a country, powerful people fixed it. For instance, Abraham Lincoln became President and led the North in a Civil War to end slavery. Case closed.

But actually, the case is far from closed. No teacher or textbook told me that we didn’t make sure to tell all Black people who were enslaved that slavery was over after the Civil War. Nobody told me that both Southern and Northern states found ways to continue the practice of slavery within our prison system, permitted by a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment. No one told me that the Emancipation Proclamation was perhaps primarily a military strategy that allowed Black people to fight for the Union Army, to gain an edge over the South. If I’d learned these things, I might have begun to see that Ibram Kendi’s assertion — powerful people trying to keep their disproportionate amount of power from others — shows up everywhere in our history and is perhaps a reason why we are still living in a society of tremendous inequality.

“America is the story of powerful people struggling to keep their disproportionate amount of power from people who are struggling for the power to be free.” — Ibram Kendi

Let’s take a deeper look at an example of a national achievement that our textbooks and politicians speak of with pride: Brown v. Board of Education. The 1954 unanimous ruling, widely considered to be the Supreme Court’s most important case, ended the doctrine of “separate but equal” established by Plessy v. Ferguson by declaring the segregation of schools in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore, unconstitutional. One interpretation of events is that the justices of the Supreme Court sincerely assessed the constitutionality of school segregation. They were forward-thinking, progressive people who had the courage to stand up to the prevailing attitudes of their day. While this perspective is a mainstream interpretation (and thus why I won’t offer it too much space in this post), what do we discover considering other interpretations?

First, even if the decision was taken sincerely, it took decades to raise the issue at the level of the Supreme Court. The NAACP had been working to bring such a case to the Supreme Court since the late 1920s, in a strategy involving five lawsuits in multiple states, argued by the NAACP’s chief counsel and eventual Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. You can read more about the campaign here.

When the Court did hear the case and took its decision, historians considered the ruling strange for its time. It appeared “seemingly at odds with the restrictive approach to individual rights in other contexts,” says Mary L. Dudziak in a 1988 issue of the Stanford Law Review. In her article, Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative, Dudziak explains that an overlooked factor in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling was the United States’ race to win influence with countries across the world during the Cold War. In fact, the Truman Administration submitted a highly unusual amicus brief urging the Court to rule in favor of desegregation, including a letter from then Secretary of State Dean Acheson and this statement from then Attorney General James P. McGranery:

The United States is trying to prove to the people of the world of every nationality, race and color, that a free democracy is the most civilized and most secure form of government yet devised by man….The existence of discrimination against minority groups in the United States has an adverse effect upon our relations with other countries. Racial discrimination furnishes grist for the Communist propaganda mills.

Dudziak explains the arguments of Acheson and McGranery in this way:

U.S. government officials realized that their ability to sell democracy to the Third World was seriously hampered by continuing racial injustice at home. Accordingly, efforts to promote civil rights within the United States were consistent with, and important to, the more central U.S. mission of fighting world communism (p. 62–63).

Further evidence that Brown v. Board of Education may have been motivated by U.S. foreign policy interests, rather than a sincere desire for racial equality, may be found in the fact that the Supreme Court offered no recommendations for how to desegregate schools, nor did the federal government do much to enforce the decision until 1970. Martin Luther King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait about the disappointment felt in the aftermath of the decision:

The Negro had been deeply disappointed over the slow pace of desegregation. He knew that in 1954 the highest court of the land had handed down a decree calling for desegregation of schools with all deliberate speed. He knew that this edict from the Supreme Court had been heeded with all deliberate delay. At the beginning of 1963, nine years after this historic decision, approximately 9 percent of Southern Negro students were attending integrated schools. If this pace were maintained, it would be 2054 before integration in southern schools would be a reality (p. 5).

When desegregation was finally prioritized, it proved remarkably effective, as Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times describes on This American Life (The Problem We All Live With, July 2015). Between 1971–1988 (the peak of desegregation), the nationwide achievement gap between Black and white students dropped from 40 to 18 points, as it allowed Black students access to the same quality teachers and facilities that white students had.

“U.S. government officials realized that their ability to sell democracy to the Third World was seriously hampered by continuing racial injustice at home. Accordingly, efforts to promote civil rights within the United States were consistent with, and important to, the more central U.S. mission of fighting world communism.” — Mary Dudziak

Despite this unparalleled success in decreasing the academic achievement gap between Black and white students, the same period saw a tremendous amount of “white flight,” which experts link to mandatory desegregation. Despite studies showing that desegregation benefits white children and Black children alike and the Supreme Court’s mandate that we enforce desegregation, most schools have no accountability for integration today. In fact, many school districts have grown even more segregated.

Politically motivated, executed with “deliberate delay,” and practically abandoned despite its effectiveness, Brown v. Board of Education seems a better deal for a government attempting to score points with foreign allies than it was for Black Americans.

This pattern of political motivation, delay in implementing civil rights laws, and the lack of enforcement and activation suggests that rather than being sincere efforts in advancing justice, these decisions co-opted the purported equality, well-being, and flourishing of Black people as a mechanism of securing and advancing power. Our collective recognition of this historical pattern is necessary. Without it, we will not differentiate change that serves the powerful from change that serves “people who are struggling for the power to be free.”

This pattern of political motivation, delay in implementing civil rights laws, and the lack of enforcement and activation suggests that rather than being sincere efforts in advancing justice, these decisions co-opted the purported equality, well-being, and flourishing of Black people as a mechanism of securing and advancing power.

This isn’t to say we have never had public servants who did not sincerely desire equality. It is only to bring light to one tragically common pattern of U.S. history that is part of why we are where we are today: The powerful convince us the job is done when, in fact, the steps taken are, to quote Macbeth, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In our next post, we’ll explore why the desire for power may result from wounding that is part of “the conflict inside our bodies.” My sincere thanks go to Laura Saracho, Rachael Rattray Chong, and Hayley Darden for reading and editing multiple drafts of this post.

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