This morning the NY Times' Charles Blow resurrects some classic American historiography: the (now) universally accepted historical thesis that Jim Crow had far less to do with Southern African Americans and ingrained Southern racism per se than with the Southern aristocracy's playbook of distracting and dividing poor Southern whites.
Late 19th-century agrarian Populism threatened to unite the two races, socioeconomically and politically, and therein lay the aristocratic landholder's peril: the potential of restructuring commonplace tenancy and shareholding arrangements of horrific imbalance as well as the pernicious crop-lien system (borrow, borrow, borrow from "the Man" against those crops, so as merely to survive to borrow again), not to mention that many Populists "fused" politically with Republican tickets, which of course further threatened to bring The Southern Democracy (that is, the autocratic Democratic Party) to its crotchety knees.
Now those were problems, for the faux aristocracy. How to nip them in the bud? Per Mr. Blow:
In 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described how the strategy of separating people with common financial interests by agitating their racial differences was used ... explaining that "the Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow."
He continued that Jim Crow was "a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man." He called this "their last outpost of psychological oblivion."
And that, in a peapod, is late 19th- and early 20th-century American Southern history. All of its other history is somehow connected, related, inherent within and radiated out. All of it. Every last bit of it, from politics to economics to law to education to literature to gender relations to ... well, all of it, plain and simple. There are quite literally no exceptions. The American South stewed and rotted in its contrived racism; it divided ignorant whites from potentially allied blacks; it repressed blacks to near invisibility and kept the whites ignorant, it kept them poor, it kept them so seething with hatred at an imaginary foe and puffed up with delight at their own imaginary superiority that they hadn't the time to ponder how deeply and thoroughly they were being screwed by their "betters" -- the white aristocrats.
Roosevelt's 1936 coalition began creating cracks in the system, black veterans' Second World War experiences furthered those cracks, and the Civil Rights Movement exploded them all to hell. But of course since the '60s we've experienced new fissures through old corruptions; principally the 'Southernization' of American politics and now, to quote Blow, "the right ... is reaching for new frontiers. The language and methodology are different, but the goal is the same: to deny, invalidate and subjugate, to distract from real issues with false divisions."
Yet at the bottom of our electoral pit there lies an ignorance from which those "false divisions" can spring. Racism is merely a form of ignorance; far more sinister, to be sure, than the ignorant belief in, say, the job-creating benefits of deficit-slashing in a recession, but ignorance nevertheless.
And that is the greatest challenge of modernity: somehow overcoming historical ignorance. Collectively we took a great leap forward in 2008, we'll take another, I'm confident, in 2012, and in time, I'm further convinced, the profoundly ignorant hard right in America will be as segregated from mainstream politics as was a black, 1890 Mississippi sharecropper.