A History of Liberal White Racism, Cont.

It's not that northern liberals cut a deal with southern racists -- the southerners were very much married to to the prospect of progressive reform.

There is some sense that when we talk about the period leading up to the New Deal and beyond, that we are talking about progressives in the North making a tragic, yet necessary, bargain with white racists conservatives in the South. In fact what Ira Katznelson shows in Fear Itself is something a little more complicated. The white supremacists in his book are, indeed, for the most part, Southern. But they also are very much married to to the prospect of progressive liberal reform. It may break our brains a bit to imagine, say, a Southern white supremacist backing railroad unions. But that's actual history.


And if you think about it, it makes sense. Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman and Tom Watson were populist and (ultimately in the case of Watson) white supremacists. The division goes back to the days of pre-slavery politics when the South was somewhat divided between planters and yeoman farmers. I say"somewhat" because on the issue of White Supremacy, there was no division. 

No character in Katznelson's book troubles the waters like Mississippi's governor, and then senator, Theodore Bilbo. Here is a man who, in one breath, can be hailed as "a liberal fire-eater" and then in another dubbed "a bulldog for protecting traditions of the South." Bilbo was a Klansmen who stumped for Al Smith. But black equality was a bridge too far.

If Roosevelt's agenda belongs to us, so does the man who said this:
...it is practically impossible, without great loss of life, especially at the present time, to prevent lynching of Negro rapists when the crime is committed against the white women of the South."
And then claimed that the United States was:
...strictly a white man's country, with a white man's civilization, and any dream on the part of the Negro Race to share social and political equality will be shattered in the end.
We can not part ourselves from the man who recounted a meeting with a delegation of back labor leaders like this:
You know folks, I run Washington. I'm mayor there...Some niggers came to see me one time in Washington to try to get the right to vote there. The leader was a smart nigger. Of course he was half white. I told him that the nigger would never vote in Washington. Hell, if we give 'em the right to vote up there, half the niggers in the South will move into Washington and we'll have a black Government. No Southerner would sit in Congress under those conditions.

Theodore Bilbo worked to block funding for Howard University, tried to initiate a "Back to Africa" campaign for colonizing black citizens, attempted to segregate the national parks, dismissed multiracial children as "a motley melee of misceginated mongrels," attempted to ban interracial marriage in Washington, D.C., and raged against antilynching legislation that would compel "Southern girls to use the stools and toilets of damn syphilitic women." And he did this as a progressive.


It is not enough to claim that "liberalism" has, somehow, changed meanings thus allowing us to disown the Mississippi Senator. On the contrary, the Roosevelt administration congratulated Bilbo on his win in 1940 pronouncing him "a real friend of liberal government." When Bilbo himself first ran for Senate  he promised to "raise the same kind of hell as President Roosevelt." When he was up for reelection Bilbo promoted himself to be "100 percent for Roosevelt ... and the New Deal." 

If the New Deal is ours, so is Theodore Bilbo. Acknowledging this part of our history wounds us. Class interests, in the liberal mind, has always been seen as the great uniter. And yet we see for whole stretches of our history race not simply race trumping class, but race effectively functioning as class. 

Does it mean that the New Deal was worthless? No. Is the point that Roosevelt was a covert anti-black bigot? Nope. But it is part of our history. And it is as important to acknowledge this--just as,  when the history of marriage equality is written, it will be important to acknowledge the Democratic Party's "evolution."
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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