by Thomas Sugrue
James Jackson Kilpatrick, conservative columnist, segregationist crusader, and celebrated wordsmith, is dead. The Oklahoma-born journalist quickly rose to the top of the Richmond News-Leader but became a nationally-known figure for his call for massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education and later the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he denounced as an un-American threat to "the right to own, possess, and manage property." If "the citizen's right to discriminate" should "be destroyed, the whole basis of individual liberty is destroyed."
In his waning years, Kilpatrick distanced himself from his segregationist past. He renounced racial discrimination and attributed his segregationism to youthful excess. Youthful excess or not, the man who once described himself as "only a little to the South of John C. Calhoun" played a vital role in facilitating the rise of a right-wing, free-market ideology--one that was born of opposition to even the mildest laws restricting racial segregation. Historian Nancy MacLean (who has written persuasively about the link between the free market economics and Jim Crow--some of the above Kilpatrick quotes come from her work) shows how Kilpatrick influenced William Buckley and the National Review (even helping provide the NR with membership lists from the racist White Citizens Councils to expand the magazine's subscriber pool) and laid the groundwork for the inroads that the Republican Party made in the Land of Dixie in the 1960s and beyond.
Americans love a good conversion story. Kilpatrick's embrace of "colorblindness" seemed proof of his redemption. But the rhetoric of colorblindness shouldn't blind us to the ways, as MacLean puts it, that Kilpatrick and other conservative leaders "played a two-faced game, singing hosannas to color blindness on one side, while continuing to whistle Dixie on the other." Kilpatrick continued to be a staunch foe of civil rights enforcement (what good was the 1964 Civil Rights Law, after all, if every attempt to ferret out discrimination was, to Kilpatrick, evidence of the overreach of federal power?) He resisted even the most tepid legislative efforts to actually put teeth into antidiscrimination laws. Kilpatrick argued that the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act, passed by a bipartisan majority (and enacted over Ronald Reagan's veto), was a dangerous threat to free enterprise and individual choice.
But race still mattered to Kilpatrick, even as he professed it did not. In his columns, he dug up one obscure incident after another to make a case for a pattern of "reverse discrimination" against white people. Those stories (variations on the theme of the white man who didn't get a job because a supposedly unqualified minority took his place), solidified into conventional wisdom because Kilpatrick and his comrades relentlessly repeated them. In Kilpatrick's view (in an August 30, 1989 column), civil rights advocates longed for "an Orwellian society in which some are more equal that others." For Kilpatrick and his ilk, the only "discrimination" worth fighting was that which supposedly targeted whites, even though there was and is no compelling statistical evidence that whites suffer from systematic discrimination. But then again, Kilpatrick, a take-no-prisoners debater, saw no need to let data stand in the way of "the truth."
Even in the 1980s and 1990s, Kilpatrick couldn't hold back some of his deepest prejudices. Gays were a particular target. In a June 30, 1988 Newsday column, Kilpatrick wrote this:
My thought is that AIDS victims deserve about the same "compassion" that society extends to those who smoke themselves to death or drink themselves to death. Let us reserve our deepest grief for victims of the drunken driver, or for those who die of genetic diseases...the fellow who dies of sodomy is no more special than the fellow who dies of two packs of cigarettes a day.
And when the Supreme Court ruled that the government could deny funding to Bob Jones University because of its prohibition on interracial dating, Kilpatrick offered this pearl in the Washington Post (note his careful wordsmithing, especially his use of "may"):
It may well be ''uncharitable,'' as the Supreme Court concluded in the Bob Jones case, to preach that miscegenation is sinful.... But these are sincerely held religious beliefs. I do not see how the power of the state constitutionally can be invoked to punish either Bob Jones...Their religious teachings may strike many persons as obnoxious or unfair, but these teachings are their own business. They ought to be left alone.
Whites are victims of discrimination. Opposition to "miscegenation" is a legitimate religious belief. AIDS victims brought it on themselves.
Kilpatrickisms still shape the vision of America's cultural warriors--witness the "black racism" charges involving the minuscule New Black Panther Party or the brouhaha around Shirley Sherrod.
But Kilpatrickism--its faux color blindness and its uncompromising faith in the market--is his most poisonous legacy. Kilpatrick's paeans to color blindness and his suspicion of integration are echoed in current conservative jurisprudence. Read Chief Justice John Roberts's opinion in Parents Involved (the Supreme Court case that struck down voluntary school integration programs in Seattle and Louisville) if you want to see Kilpatrickism redux. And it infuses the antigovernment, pro-business rhetoric of the right.
Whether or not Kilpatrick rests in peace, it will be a long time before his ideas are buried and gone.