By Alan Bean
Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, third best behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies. When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience applauded as the credits rolled–something you don’t see very often.
The film, loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is relentlessly historical. Lincoln is portrayed as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of turning The Great Emancipator into a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century. Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade in every corner of the Union and little else.
In 1858, in the course of his ongoing debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln assured an audience in Charleston, Kentucky, that he had never suggested that whites and Negroes could, or should, live as equals:
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together in terms of social and political equality.”
In the middle of the 19th Century, that was as far as a senatorial candidate with presidential ambitions could go. There were radicals like Thaddeus Stevens (brilliantly portrayed in the Spielberg movie by Tommy Lee Jones) who did champion the full equality of white and black Americans, but that was very much a minority opinion.
Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s opponent in 1858 (and again in the presidential election of 1860), considered himself a moderate on the slavery issue. Unlike the Southern radicals who wished to see the peculiar institution established throughout the nation, Douglas championed States Rights, the view that each state should settle the slavery issue according to its best lights.
In Charleston, Douglas insisted that the authors of the Declaration of Independence never intended to define the Negro as the equal of the white man.
I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion this government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come.
Twice, the states of the old Confederacy have been forced to bow to the opinion of the federal government on the black-white equality issue: in 1865, at Appomattox, and a century later with the passing of the Voting Rights Act.
If the slavery question had been left to the Confederate States in 1860, the horrors of the Civil War could have been avoided and, for all we know, chattel slavery might still be the law in Dixie.
If the issue of civil rights had been left to southern states like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas in 1960, Jim Crow segregation might still be a thriving institution in the states of the Old South.
Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election in “never-in-a-thousand-years” states like Mississippi by appearing on the stump with George Wallace. This implied that Carter was flexible on the civil rights issue. When he quickly proved otherwise, a California Governor saw his opportunity. Ronald Reagan carried the Democratic South in 1980 by suggesting that the South should have been free to settle the segregation issue on its own without federal intrusion.
If the segregation question had been put to the Southern electorate in 1960 or 1965, would Martin Luther King have been pleased with the outcome? Would 10% of the white electorate have endorsed the civil rights of Negroes, or is that figure optimistic?
And what if the issue had been put to a vote in 1970, or 1976 or 1980? Would white voters in Mississippi have changed their minds with the mere passage of time? What about 2000? Would southern whites have changed their minds about civil rights by then? Exit polls suggest that in 2012 Barack Obama received 10% of the white vote in Mississippi and 15% in Alabama; if the issue of civil rights had been settled according to States Rights principles in 1965, would black civil rights have been more popular than Obama?
We will never know. As a matter of historical fact, the feds settled the issue by legislative fiat.
Much has been said about the decisive nature of the youth vote in 2012, but white youth went for Romney by 7%, and among white males the margin of victory was 11%. And those are national numbers. Since Obama fared much worse with white voters in the South than in the Midwest and Northeast, I imagine the Republican candidate won by a landslide among young Southern whites. (If somebody has found any documentation on this question please send it to me–I couldn’t find a single article or blog post devoted to the voting patterns of voters between 18 and 29 in the South.)
As I watched Daniel Day Lewis’ masterful portrayal of President Lincoln it struck me that the nation is as divided in 2012 as it was in 1864, and on largely the same lines. We have settled the equality issue in a rough and ready sort of way. If Mississippi voters were asked whether African, Latino and Asian Americans should be considered the full equals of white Americans legally, politically and civilly, I am confident that a solid majority would vote in the affirmative.
Similarly, I firmly believe that the institution of slavery would receive about the same level of support in Mississippi and Alabama as did President Obama. Perhaps a quarter of the 65+ white voters in these states would still defend a state’s right to deny the vote to whomever it wished, but the idea would gain little traction among younger white electorate.
So, in that sense, we have made great strides. And yet, even among the youngest segment of the electorate, we see a stout, unflinching divide between white and minority opinion. The divide is particularly pronounced in southern states like Texas where the Republican Party has effectively become the political face of the white electorate. White voters have readily embraced a racial narrative designed to relieve them of residual guilt for the nation’s tragic racial history.
White folks are repeatedly assured that historical embarrassments like slavery and Jim Crow segregation have no bearing on the obvious gaps in education, wealth and professional attainment that separate whites from blacks and Latinos. There are makers (most of whom happen to be white), and there are takers (most of whom happen to be black and brown), the message goes. If white people are more successful than black and brown people it is simply because they work harder. And if white Americans work hard it is strictly a matter of personal responsibility–history has nothing to do with it.
The language has changed, but the message hasn’t changed all that much since 1858. Substitute “makers” for “white men” and Stephen A. Douglas’s statement in Charleston Kentucky still applies: The promise of equality “was made by makers for the benefit of makers and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by makers in all time to come.” If some brown and black people qualify as makers, the full array of constitutional protections applies to them as well (this isn’t about race, after all). But takers will never be judged the equal of makers; some of us will always be more equal than others.
This white racial narrative is the unspoken issue Republicans and Democrats debate in the 21st Century. Few politicians on either side would dare frame the matter so crudely; but that’s what it’s all about. If religious values divided the nation, minority evangelicals would be as enthusiastic about the Republican platform as are white evangelicals. In reality, evangelicals divide politically along racial lines.
Texas Democrats, many of whom are aging Dixiecrats who couldn’t bring themselves to switch brand, have resisted being branded as the non-white party, although that is what they have effectively become. If Texas Democrats embrace the diversity they have inherited by default, it will be because the party has been commandeered by Latino voters who are tired of waiting for an invitation. That great day may soon be upon us.
In a penetrating article in the New Yorker, Ryan Lizza asks, “As immigration turns red states blue, how can Republicans transform their platform?”
Two answers are emerging. Conservatives, like newly elected Texas State Senator Ted Cruz, argue that Republicans don’t have to change their harsh stance on immigration to win over Latinos; they just have to stress the importance of hard work and family values. Moderates like successful Texas Republican Martinez de Vara favor “the more difficult path” in which the G.O.P. abandons its current position on immigration in favor of the relatively moderate immigration policies championed by George W. Bush.
Can the Republican Party change its policies enough to win minority votes without risking a backlash from an overwhelmingly white party membership with a proven appetite for regressive policies on criminal justice and immigration issues?
Let us pray that the Republicans shed their close association with the white electorate by framing policies minority voters can support. As Martinez de Vara argues in the New Yorker piece, America’s draconian immigration policy can’t be defended on conservative, small government grounds.
“What are they proposing? A border wall? That’s massive confiscation of private property. We oppose that in every other context. It’s a big-government, big-spending project. We oppose that in every other context. Arming the government with greater police powers? We oppose that in every other context. This is big-government liberalism, and for conservatives it just makes no sense.”
The same is obviously true for mass incarceration. We cannot afford the vast prison gulag that has sprung up across our nation in the past thirty years. We cannot afford to lock up non-violent drug offenders on the government dime when they could be contributing members of society. We cannot afford our monstrously expensive death penalty. We cannot afford to wage a futile and obscenely expensive drug war. Conservative fiscal principles argue against such foolishness every bit as forcefully as liberal sympathy. When it comes to issues like immigration and mass incarceration, compassion and common sense join hands.
The churches of America, whether majority white or predominantly minority, could solemnize this marriage of compassion and common sense without engaging in partisan politics. If immigration and mass incarceration have become partisan issues it is only because they stand proxy for an ugly and unacknowledged racial warfare. Liberals and conservatives can find common ground on these issues, but first we must transcend the poisonous racial history that has frustrated the great promise of our nation from its earliest days.