Black Lives Matter, youth militancy, and resistance

—Sekou Franklin

[Note: This piece was originally published on Atlanta Blackstar.]

Almost 100 years ago, the Harlem intellectual Hubert Harrison celebrated black resistance to racialized violence in the essay “As the Current Flows.” He described it as making white mobs take “their own medicine” as blacks fought back against vigilante groups in urban centers at the height of the Red Scare. The “New Negro spirit” or militancy, he believed, represented a fait accompli in American politics, or a permanent mode of black defiance against an oppressive system and its black accommodationist leadership.

The protests surrounding the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others raise the question of whether they will be this generation’s fait accompli. The Black Lives Matter movement can potentially reshape the national dialogue around race, class and the criminal justice system. It can also deepen the commitment of young and older grassroots leaders to racial justice and participatory democracy. Though young blacks make up a large number of the participants in the protests, the movement has further galvanized a large contingent of non-blacks such that it may lead to a new kind of rainbow coalition.

Almost 20 years ago, I lived in a San Francisco neighborhood that experienced its own police killing of an unarmed black man named William Hankston. Residents were especially outraged that it occurred near a day-care center where two dozen school-age children witnessed the incident. The killing ignited minor scrapes between black youth and the police. Yet after the anger subsided, the protests stopped as the victim’s family and the police department began a legal battle that lasted several years.

My front-row seat at the Hankston incident shaped my immediate response to the protests in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting. I thought the protests would end or be corralled by black leaders and that the protesters would eventually go home. I was wrong. Instead of diminished protests, they continue to spread throughout the country including in places as dissimilar as New York and Alaska, as well as dozens of cities outside the United States.

By all accounts, activists and communities at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter movement have a policy window or political opportunity to advance serious reforms of a broken criminal justice system, and to connect these reforms to economic justice policies that can improve the lives of the working poor. There is already evidence that the resistance has made a difference. Moderate racial profiling measures are currently being debated in state and local legislative bodies. Congress just approved the Death in Custody Reporting Act, and the Justice Department announced new rules to reduce racial profiling by federal law enforcement officials.

Yet despite the incredible courage and youthful energy of the protesters, it is unclear if these protests will lead to life-altering improvements for working-class communities beyond the moderate reforms that were just approved. Black Lives Matter activists are up against entrepreneurial police commissioners that have different management styles than earlier police chiefs such as the Bull Connors, Frank Rizzos, and William Parkers that ran big-city police departments from the 1930s-1970s. Whereas the latter group publicly championed jackboot, racialized policing strategies, most of today’s big-city police superintendents (and district attorneys) have perfected the art of political stagecraft and are particularly skilled at building allies in the black community. These officials, working hand-in-hand with powerful economic interests, have built in most cities a “cradle to prison” regime — biracial or multiracial governing coalitions skilled at moderating racial discord in the aftermath of incidents involving police misconduct.

We don’t have a definitive answer as to what makes movements such as Black Lives Matter a fait accompli or a permanent mode of resistance. What distinguishes movements and youth-based insurgencies that foment transformative change from those that are contained has puzzled movement activists and scholars more than many of us would like to admit. Yet young activists should pay attention to some signposts as they attempt to sustain the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015.

Intergenerational activism

Although the recent groundswell of activism has its own unique character and historical roots, it is part of a long tradition of youth militancy that dates back nearly a century. In the 1920s, black college students revolted against the oligarchic leadership that presided over historically black colleges and universities. A decade later the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a radical youth formation that attracted young activists such as James Jackson and Sallye Davis (Angela Davis’ mother), organized young people in support of economic justice and voting rights initiatives. The 1950s and 1960s gave birth to the Youth Marches for Integrated Schools; the sit-in movement of 1960 that attracted more than 50,000 young protesters; and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as well as the Student Organization for Black Unity. Young activists helped to propel the Pan-African and black feminist movements of the 1970s as well as the South African divestment movement of the 1980s. And, the Black Student Leadership Network set up dozens of freedom schools in low-income communities during the early-mid 1990s.

Despite these earlier movements and others not mentioned, we still have a lot to learn about black youth agency. Many older black activists believe that the strength and dynamism of black and multiracial movements in the 1960s have been under-researched or inaccurately reported. Some activists even believe that the overall framing of black youth agency — and the media’s obsessive attention to the divisions between adults and the youth — was initially framed by academicians whose experiences and research were shaped by white-led and western European student movements. Some believe assessments of white student activism were mistakenly reinterpreted or misappropriated to evaluate black youth agency. Whether true or not, the limited research on black social and political agency has inhibited the academic and activist communities from challenging common assumptions about youth activism.

Also frustrating is the media’s focus on adult/youth divisions within the black activist community in its portrayal of the Black Lives Matter protests. This attention has been partially fueled by young protesters themselves. Corporate and even the most movement-friendly media have little understanding of grassroots organizing, how protests are planned, and the actual science or strategic planning that goes into sustaining movement campaigns. The adult-versus-youth narrative, which is quite predictable and unsettling, thus takes away from deeper stories about the brilliance and tactical innovation of the young Black Lives Matter organizers.

Certainly, generational divisions permeate all protest waves. They did in the 1930s, almost a forgotten period of black youth radicalism, and they were pervasive in the 1950s-1970s civil rights and black power movements. However, the intergenerational dimension of these movements is actually a testament to the vitality of black political agency. The cohesion between young activists and long-standing community leaders, many of whom are unrecognized and barely mentioned in movement media portraits, is certainly more fascinating than the clashes between young radicals and the black establishment.

Take for example the dominant narrative in movement circles about generational divisions between SNCC and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s SCLC. SNCC may have been the most important youth-based movement organization of the twentieth century. Its intimate relationships with older, indigenous activists or what Charles Payne calls “local people” was more reflective of its organizing philosophy than its battles with the SCLC. Herbert Lee, Amzie Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and Gloria Richardson were older leaders who joined or allied with SNCC.

On the other hand, a network of young activists bolstered some of SCLC’s militant action.  James Orange joined SCLC in his late teens, and was one of the unsung heroes of the Selma voting rights campaign despite being younger than most SNCC members. (The Selma movie inaccurately portrays Orange as the same age as other SCLC staff members, but he was actually in his early twenties at the time and younger than SNCC chairperson John Lewis.) Diane Nash and Bernard Lafayette, both young organizers in the Nashville civil rights movement and the freedom rides, traversed between SNCC and the SCLC. The SCLC also coordinated Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools after the collapse of the Highlander Folk School. The Citizenship Schools mirrored SNCC’s freedom schools and surely was championed by young activists who were critical of the SCLC and adult leadership.

Indeed, many young activists have no problem working in intergenerational movement infrastructures as long as seasoned or older activists respect their voice and autonomy.  Young organizers also need older activists to leverage their resources and expertise to prolong militant youth action. What young people oppose is the doctrinaire and seemingly anti-democratic wing of the black leadership class. Even Ella Baker’s critique of the SCLC and adult leadership, as recounted in Barbara Ransby’s groundbreaking book, “Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement,” was less about generational divisions than the class orientations and bureaucratic inertia of the mainline civil rights groups.

For the purposes of the Black Lives Matter protests, the most useful example from Baker’s life may be how she used her position in the SCLC and her close ties with other social justice groups to develop an alliance of student and youth activists. Many activists are familiar with the story of SNCC. It was formed at the tail end of the 1960 sit-in movement that targeted racially segregated, public accommodations. After the sit-ins, Baker pulled together young activists for a national gathering at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., in what became SNCC’s founding conference.

A national dialogue

A similar national gathering involving Black Lives Matter organizers and seasoned community organizations — from the Lost Voices, League of Young Voters, Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, BYP 100, Hands Up United, Center for Community Change, Organization for Black Struggle, Movement Strategy Center, Millennial Activists United, NAACP Youth & College Division, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Project South, Highlander Research and Education Center, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Ferguson Action, Southern Echo, and leading hip-hop activists — would have the potential to break new ground for 21st century resistance movements.

However, a major concern is that some of the Black Lives Matter activists are caught up in what used to be called a “freedom high” and many actions — die-ins, hands up postures and road blockades — lack strategic planning and are failing to tell real stories of how working people are adversely affected by the criminal justice system. Because some actions are ritualistic, some local initiatives or networks have done a poor job connecting the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions with local policy demands.

A national gathering could give the lead organizers the opportunity to strategize and think more systematically about leadership development, training and storytelling. It could give young people deeper connections with indigenous networks in working-class communities of color. It could encourage them to extend the organizing sphere to small cities and rural communities that are also plagued by police misconduct and racially disparate inequities in the criminal justice system. The gathering could also allow young people to link grievances about criminal justice irregularities to economic justice claims.

Admittedly, creating a national alliance has its shortcomings. It takes resources, funding, and the lead organizations would inevitably have to grapple with racial and ideological divisions in the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, not having a national dialogue or gathering could damage the long-term prospects of youth activism. Professor Matthew Countryman was a young organizer in the South African divestment movement during the 1980s. Similar to today’s protest wave, the divestment movement experienced an outpouring of student and young activists, who organized actions at more than 100 universities in the United States. The movement also pressured lawmakers to adopt the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, Congress’s most authoritative attack against the South African regime. Yet, as Countryman wrote in the Nation essay, “Beyond Victory: The Lessons of the Divestment Drive,” the movement “grounded to a halt largely because of serious organizational and strategic weaknesses.” Influential divestment activists religiously guarded their autonomy because of well-understood suspicions of cooptation. They then rejected attempts to build a broader political base or national alliance that could unite young activists and leverage the resources to extend movement building activities.

There is some indication that leading activists involved in Black Lives Matter are dialoguing about how to sustain the movement beyond the initial wave of actions. On January 22nd these activists coalescing under the moniker, National Collective of Black Organizers, released the report, “State of the Black Union: The Shadow of Crisis Has Not Passed”. The brief outlines twelve, broad demands for America that reflect the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter movement.

However, eleven out of twelve demands mirror the resolutions and policy recommendations already advanced by mainline civil rights and black groups such as the NAACP, Urban League, National Action Network, Congressional Black Caucus, National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, and Nation of Islam. The only point of contention between the collective and mainline organizations is perhaps the former group’s critique of President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The collective criticizes the exclusion of women and LGBT youth from the initiative, and instead urges Obama to reorganize it into the Our Children’s Keeper program. What’s missing from the brief is a detailed assessment of how the collective’s demands differ from those endorsed by preexisting black and civil rights groups.  Also missing is a concrete plan that connects young activists with indigenous and older activists living in struggling black communities, and working with residents who need immediate or specific policy interventions to address their material conditions.

Cross-sector movement alliances

In reality, the recent protests are part of a larger multi-layered and cross-sector protest wave. The Moral Monday movement initiated by the North Carolina NAACP has lasted a year and a half and is now in a dozen states. Another promising movement is the Show Me 15 — a $15 per hour wage for fast food workers — that has spread to 200 cities. Show Me 15 activists are mostly low-wage workers, people of color including a large representation of black women, and young people. These worker activists offer a counter-narrative to the politics of respectability that positions students, middle-class or sanitized activists at the forefront of movement campaigns.

Fortunately, we can look to the Ferguson/St. Louis region to understand the benefits of cross-sector movement building. Some organizers on the frontlines of the restaurant boycotts in St. Louis joined the Ferguson protests. Some of the St. Louis/Ferguson worker activists then traveled to my home state of Tennessee to stand on the picket lines with boycotting fast-food workers. The cross-fertilization between criminal justice and economic justice movements is potentially one of the transformative outcomes of this current wave of protests.

Cross-sector alliances have already produced deeper conversations between diverse activists. They have allowed for movement borrowing or the sharing of strategies and tactics between different groups adversely affected by the “cradle-to-prison” regime, including black youth activists concerned about racial profiling and racially-based police killings, low-wage restaurant workers whose economic mobility is inhibited by prior histories in the criminal justice system, immigrant rights advocates who fight against racial profiling programs such as 287(g) that have led to the mass detention of undocumented residents, and young homeless rights activists whose constituents are heavily policed and pushed out of high-density and commercial development corridors.

The role of the academy

If Black Lives Matter, Moral Monday, Show Me 15, and other movements are going to be viable responses to inequality then black social scientists must be integral to this struggle. There are multiple roles that they (we) can play including assisting young activists with press releases, op-eds, fundraising initiatives and research.

During the protest waves of the 1930s-1940s and the 1950s-1970s, there was a partnership between resistance movements and hybrid academicians (or scholars who had one foot in movements and the other one in the academy). Ira De Reid, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles Johnson belonged to a cadre of black scholars commissioned by the American Council on Education in the 1940s to study the challenges facing black youth. Their pioneering studies provided a broader context for shaping radical youth organizations such as the Southern Negro Youth Congress.

The National Conference of Black Political Scientists was also established in 1969 as an outgrowth of the civil rights and black power movements. More recently, black political scientists have been on the frontlines of anti-poverty and labor campaigns, movements to abolish the death penalty and reverse wrongful convictions, public health initiatives, LGBT movements, voting rights campaigns, and other social movements. The Moral Monday movement’s official training manual further encourages its state or local affiliates to partner with “activist scholars” as a key component of movement building.

The Current Flows

In looking back at the period that shaped Hubert Harrison’s perspective, one might very well conclude that he was wrong in his prediction that America was on the horizon of a black fait accompli or permanent mode of black resistance after World War I. Although black students revolted at their universities in the 1920s, the protests were relegated to a small contingent of the middle-class. Harrison’s optimism notwithstanding, Jim Crow stiffened and Northern racism persisted. Racial terrorism also increased and black life worsened under the Great Depression.

The events in the first half of the twentieth century underscore how difficult it is to sustain civil resistance beyond the initial outbursts or wave of protests. Ella Baker understood this challenge. She rejected the notion that the 1960 sit-in movement would continue to self-procreate even though the movement attracted tens of thousands of students.

After the initial wave of sit-ins, she and others rededicated themselves to organizing, planning, leadership development, intergenerational movement building, and experimentation in order to convert youth insurgents into a formidable political force in the 1960s. As such, if the Black Lives Matter resistance is going to be a protracted struggle instead of an episodic one, its leading voices must follow Baker’s instructions. Only then will we know if the movement is the fait accompli for this generation.

Sekou Franklin is the author of After the Rebellion: Black Youth, Social Movement Activism, and the Post-Civil Rights Generation (NYU Press, 2014).

Q&A with Andrew M. Schocket, author of Fighting over the Founders

In the interview below, author and historian Andrew M. Schocket discusses his longstanding love of history, the inspiration behind his new book, and his thoughts on the shifting legacy of the American Revolution.

We would also like to extend our thanks to the interviewer, graduate student Adam Crockett, for generously allowing us to publish the piece here.

Q: When did you become interested in history, and was it always American history?

Andrew M. Schocket: Even as an adolescent, I was interested in history. I was lucky to have wonderful American history teachers and a teacher of European history who was Russian. Russian history is the history of suffering and perseverance, the steppes and the winter, forbearance and, of course, the state and Mother Russia. By contrast, American history is the history of promises kept and broken, of liberty and power, of many groups figuring out where they fit in the grander dreams they have for themselves and the nation.

Is your particular area of expertise the era of the American Revolution?

It is, and I’m finally getting back to the American Revolution in my writing. It was what I went to graduate school to learn and write about, and still my greatest passion in history. My first book, on the origins of corporate power in the United States, was an exploration of how Americans in Philadelphia reorganized their polity and economy in the aftermath of the Revolution. I’m now working on several projects. Chief among them is a book about the scale of violence during the American Revolution, and how it was mostly resolved by the end of the eighteenth century. The violence and dislocation of the Revolution has been greatly downplayed. Admitting that, what I’m asking is, given that a majority of Americans were either neutral (“disaffected,” they called it) or loyalist, what led people to begin to recognize their new governments—local, state, and national—as legitimate?  Why did they start obeying the laws, serving on juries, paying their taxes? As with so many questions about the past, it’s also partly inspired by the present, as we look around the world and wonder how to restore some sense of order to the many countries suffering chaos. That said, it’s a question I’ve been thinking about on and off for close to twenty years.

Was the spark for this really a political flyer? How long have you been writing this book for?

Invoking a political flyer served was a good hook to my chapter about politics in Fighting over the Founders, because it’s something that so many of us has encountered.  But the book came out of some work I was doing around 2008, as I was writing a more theoretical piece on future directions of the scholarship on the American Revolution. Most historians in America are very unreflexive, that is, don’t think much about our own position in our scholarship, as we are taught to be, and especially most historians of the American Revolution. How could we, and the general public, understand the American Revolution without considering the lenses through which we view it?  So I began to look around at political culture and popular culture to see how we encounter the American Revolution, and the book grew from there.

Do you feel that American history is unique in that regard? Is America a land of “promises kept and broken”?

It is, perhaps to a greater extent than most countries, because American nationalism may have a stronger dose of idealism to it than most. Nationalism for most countries is bound up more centrally with ethnicity. To be sure, historically and even in the present day, many Americans have imbued American nationalism with ethnocentrism. Nonetheless, a nation that claims to be a “citie on a hill,” dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” whose sovereignty is vested in “we the people,” and that has a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” is one that has many promises woven into its fabric.

Do you feel you’ll ever have an answer to that question, of what inspired
the “disaffected” to recognize the new government?

Maybe. Stay tuned. But even if I have an answer, as with the work of any historian, it won’t be the last word.

When did you settle on the terms “organicist” and “essentialist” for the
different political parties? Specifically, at what point did you recognize
the patterns in their respective discourses?

It was clear that there was a stark difference in the kinds of language that Republicans used versus what Democrats used.  It surprised me a little, in that I had expected that they would be pretty similar. The use of “essentialism” was pretty easy, as it’s a term already out there describing a similar mindset in other contexts.  “Organicism” was harder, and it’s not as perfect a fit, which is why I devoted some space to defining both of them and the history of the concepts.

It’s not exactly a historian’s job to predict the future, but then where’s
the fun without it? Given how you’ve said most of the landscape was
dominated by essentialists up until the 1970s, do you see organicism
eventually becoming the dominate view? If not, what do you see happening
farther down the road with regards to how the public sees the Revolution
the farther away from it we get?

As best I can tell, essentialism and organicism are both becoming entrenched, just in different ways than before. Popular and political culture are too vast for large elements of the national self-image to disappear; plus, in some ways these two threads represent deep fissures in American culture that show no signs of going away. We’ve been debating the American Revolution for over two hundred years. It will be fascinating to see how the debates will go concerning the next big milestone, the nation’s sestercentennial, or whatever we decide to call the nation’s 250th anniversary.

And finally, the most important question, what do you like to drink when
you’re writing?

Water neat, sometimes with a water chaser. Although apparently best practice suggests alcohol for creativity, and caffeine for productivity.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015).

Why grand jurors matter

—Andrew Guthrie Ferguson

On Monday, at 9:00pm, the nation anxiously awaited the decision of twelve ordinary citizens. National and international media prepared to report on the collective efforts of the grand jurors assembled in the Darren Wilson/Michael Brown case. Those ordinary citizen-jurors had worked for three months, digesting the testimony of 60 witnesses, reams of documents, and physical, medical, and forensic evidence.

The striking thing about that moment before the prosecutor announced the “no true bill” was the faith that the crowd had in the institution of the grand jury. The crowd was quiet, peaceful, and hopeful that the legal process would work. It was a moment of faith in a democratic system that trusts citizens to judge citizens. And, what is so tragic about an already tragic police shooting is that this faith was undermined by the grand jury process itself.

To be clear, the grand jurors did exactly what they were supposed to do. They listened to the evidence, they deliberated, and they made a decision based on a legal standard that is quite protective to claims of self-defense by law enforcement officers. But, they did so in a grand jury that was not typical, and was, in many respects, quite unusual compared to the normal grand jury process.

As a general matter, for reasons of efficiency and tactics, most prosecutors do not allow the grand jurors the ability to request evidence or ask for testimony as was done in the Darren Wilson grand jury. If such an open process were done in the normal course, grand jury indictments would be much slower to reach, and trial convictions much more rare because all of the conflicting statements and evidence produced at the grand jury would have to be turned over to the defense. For those reasons, most prosecutors generally have witnesses summarize evidence, testify through hearsay, and seek only to produce evidence sufficient to reach the rather low standard of probable cause.

Last year in Kaley v. United States, Justice Elena Kagan remarked that probable cause at a grand jury was an “undemanding” standard which serves merely a gateway function before trial: “Probable cause, we have often told litigants, is not a high bar: It requires only the ‘kind of “fair probability” on which ‘reasonable and prudent [people,] not legal technicians, act.’” Thus, this expansive, extensive grand jury investigation was not the usual process to find probable cause.

At the same time, at least in theory, grand juries are expected to play the role of protectors of the accused. Grand juries were designed by the Founders as part of our constitutional structure to protect citizens from unfounded prosecutions and political pressure. What the prosecutors did in this case was faithful to that original purpose.

The tension—now a national flashpoint—is that such a fulsome grand jury investigation is not done in the ordinary course, and certainly would not have been conducted if Michael Brown had killed Officer Darren Wilson. Both investigations would go before a grand jury, yes, but the process of an extensive and complete grand jury investigation would likely not have occurred. This two-tiered structure plays into a narrative of unequal treatment of minorities at the hands of police, an inequity that raises real issues of racial justice and police-citizen trust in St. Louis and beyond.

In the coming days, pundits, lawyers, and citizens will debate the merits of the evidence released that night, and the wisdom of the path the prosecutors took in placing all of the evidence before the grand jury. But, no matter the debate, what those grand jurors did was to be commended and respected. Those jurors showed that grand jurors matter, and will continue to matter in society. Hopefully, as a society, we will take this opportunity to educate ourselves about the role of jurors and try to regain a renewed faith in the legal system.

For more thoughts on the subject, please see the recent episode of The Diane Rehm Show on Ferguson.

Andrew Guthrie Ferguson is author of Why Jury Duty Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Constitutional Action (NYU Press, 2012) and an associate professor of law at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia.

What Freedom Summer means to me

—F. Michael Higginbotham

“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

The famous line from the song “Summertime,” written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, captures how I feel when I reminisce about most summers gone by. Playing little league baseball, swimming at the beach or local public pool, or roasting marshmallows over the open fire, playing team tag under the stars, and gazing at fireworks on the 4th of July, all represent the best of what an American summer should entail. Yet, the summer of 1964 brings up very different images of America’s past.

In the summer of 1964, major civil rights organizations implemented a plan to significantly increase black voter registration in Mississippi. Officially called the Mississippi Summer Project but popularly referred to as Freedom Summer, the initiative was a bold step to directly tackle racial exclusion in the political process in a state with, arguably, one of the worst civil rights records. Due to discriminatory laws and practices such as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, economic punishments, and physical intimidation, black registration in Mississippi was at 6%, the lowest of any state. The plan involved over one thousand volunteers, mostly white college students from northern universities, working closely with civil rights workers and leaders in the Mississippi black community, facilitating black voter registration.

From the onset, most white Mississippians resented any attempts to increase black voter registration, or to alter the racial status quo in any way. During the course of the two and a half month project, massive and often violent resistance occurred, including bombings and burnings of black churches, businesses, and homes; arrests and beatings of volunteers and aspiring registrants; and the murder of four civil rights workers and three state residents. These resistance efforts were successful at dissuading black Mississippians from registering.

While few additional voters were registered during Freedom Summer, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi helped to focus attention on racial barriers to voting rights throughout the South. Recognition that Mississippi was not an aberration but rather a reflection of widespread exclusion of black voters throughout the south, and in some parts of the north, helped further efforts by civil rights groups and leaders of the Democratic Party, including President Lyndon Johnson, to secure passage of voting rights protection on a national scale. The result was the Voting Rights Act (VRA), enacted in 1965, the most democratizing piece of legislation ever passed.

In signing the law, President Johnson termed it “a monumental law in the history of American freedom.” He was right. In less than four years after the law was enacted, 800,000 blacks registered to vote. In Mississippi, for example, black registration increased from 6% to 66%.

Certainly substantial progress has been made since 1965 when the VRA was passed. Much is owed to those brave young participants in Freedom Summer who helped bring attention to the broken promises of democracy for thousands of Mississippi blacks. Yet today, racially-polarized voting patterns, the practice of reducing minority participation for partisan advantage in many parts of the nation, with blatant racism in others, suggest a continued need for an effective VRA. Anything less would diminish the meaning of Freedom Summer.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

Fox News’ divisive race strategy

—Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks

Right-wing political figures have often defended the content of Fox News and other right-leaning media. A common ploy is the insinuation that the “mainstream” news establishment is in fact biased in favor of liberal ideological framings of issues or that it is actually antiwhite. For example, Sarah Palin famously blamed the “leftist lamestream media” for allegedly pressuring Newt Gingrich to soften his critique of Republican congressman Paul Ryan (while in fact the disapproval came from Fox News), and Palin again insinuated charges of political targeting when she decried the media as attacking right-wing figures with their brand of unfair “gotcha journalism.” Rush Limbaugh also compared the mainstream press to a “drive by shooter except the microphones are guns.” Limbaugh further asserted that the anti-right, mainstream media attempts to “destroy people’s careers. Then they get in the convertible, head on down the road and do it all over again, while people like you and me are left to clean up the mess with the truth. So I call them the drive-by media.”

The Fox News audience is distinct. Numerous studies have found Fox viewers to be less informed about political and current events than viewers of most other broadcast news and cable networks. This could mean either that Fox News performs less effectively in educating viewers or that Fox News attracts less knowledgeable audiences. Other studies have found that individuals who like news with in-depth interviews tend to watch network news and CNN more than Fox, and that individuals who prefer news that aligns with their already-formed opinions are much more likely to watch Fox News (while no such relationship exists for the CNN or network audiences). More research indicates that ABC, CBS, and NBC all favored their own polling numbers and reported “positive” polls for Bill Clinton and “negative” polls for George W. Bush, while Fox appeared to favor exactly the reverse. This would seem to indicate that Fox is simply on the conservative side of media bias. However, while all media outlets have political leanings, Fox News is exceptional in that Fox was especially willing to cite external polling numbers of Clinton if they were damaging—a practice that other news outlets did not perform.

Fox News also appears to cater to ethnocentric assumptions. This discourse has grown with the election of Obama to the White House. In one study, researchers asked panelists where they obtained their televised news about national and international affairs. Roughly one-quarter of respondents indicated that they received their information from Fox News. At the time of the study, questions of Obama’s birth were being raised. When asked if they believed Obama was born in the United States, only 21 percent of Fox viewers said that Obama was American born. The authors of the study, Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, wrote, “[T]he reinforcing and/or persuasive role of oppositional media outlets like Fox News and conservative talk radio could make it increasingly difficult to disabuse the sizable minority of individuals disposed to accepting invalid assertions designed to paint Obama as the ‘other.’” In the face of such evidence, many Fox apologists, commentators, and guests often defended the views of Birthers and Tea Party activists. While frequent Fox talking head Ann Coulter claimed that that no one on Fox ever mentioned “Birtherism,” research indicates that not only did Fox News mention it; they ramped up coverage of the Birthers leading up to the April 2011 release of the “long form” birth certificate. Moreover, at least 85 percent (forty-four out of fifty-two) of false claims about Obama’s birth went unchallenged on Fox News. Fox segments repeated that Obama never produced a birth certificate, that Obama’s grandmother said he was born in Kenya, and that Obama spent $2 million in legal funds blocking the release of his birth certificate.

As social scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson make clear in “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Fox News realized in early 2009 that the Tea Party was a major conservative phenomenon in the making and “moved to become [its] cheerleader-in-chief.” Fox began speaking of major Tea Party events weeks in advance and they became more of an advertiser for the Tea Party than a source of news about them. This coverage glorified the future Tea Party events by creating buzz about the expected large crowds and the political and social effect of the rallies. Having just defected from CNN, Glenn Beck traveled to various cities to interview people days before Tea Party rallies even occurred. Skocpol and Williamson contend,

A week before the first annual April 15th Tea Party rallies in 2009, Fox News promotions kicked into an even higher gear. Glenn Beck told his viewers, “We’re getting ready for next week’s Tax Day tea parties. All across the country, people coming together to let the politicians know, OK, enough spending.” Sean Hannity was even more explicit: “And, of course, April 15th, our big show coming out of Atlanta. It’s Tax Day, our Tax Day tea party show. Don’t forget, we’re going to have ‘Joe the Plumber.’” At times, Fox anchors adopted an almost cajoling tone. On Sean Hannity’s show, viewers were told, “Anybody can come, it’s free,” while Beck fans were warned, “You don’t want to miss it.” . . . [D]uring the first weeks of the Tea Party, Fox News directly linked the network’s brand to these protests and allowed members of the “Fox Nation” to see the Tea Parties as a natural outgrowth of their identity as Fox News viewers.

Simply put, Fox did not simply cover Tea Party events as they transpired, but rather helped to create and sediment support for the fledging movement in its weakest stages.

With the alignment of Birther and Tea Party movements with GOP and other hard-right-wing candidates, Fox News is shown to have a significant effect on voting patterns. In a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan find that

[t]owns with Fox News have a 0.4 to 0.7 percentage point higher Republican vote share in the 2000 Presidential elections, compared to the 1996 elections. A vote shift of this magnitude is likely to have been decisive in the 2000 elections. We also find an effect on vote share in Senate elections which Fox News does not cover, suggesting that the Fox News impact extends to general political beliefs. Finally, we find evidence that Fox News increased turnout to the polls.

Consistent with evidence of media effects on political beliefs and voting, this recent research indicates that exposure to Fox News may very well induce undecided viewers to vote for Republican candidates. Together, these findings demonstrate the unique character of Fox News, its power to influence voting patterns, and the makeup of its audience.

Fox News and associates constantly constructed the average white viewer as a hard-working American who is, at base, frightened by the unfair and racialized agenda of Obama. Characterizing the white viewer as an American under the assault of a dark and dangerous “other” implies a racial conflict in which the white viewer is an innocent bystander in the racial drama directed by the Obama administration.

For example, in July of 2008 Glenn Beck engaged in a pithy race-based fear-mongering remark on his Fox News show. He stated that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and that Obama “is, I believe, a racist.” After other journalists and activists asked him to specify, rationalize, or retract his remarks, Rupert Murdoch defended Beck’s comment. In a November 2009 interview with Australia’s Sky News, Murdoch said,

On the racist thing, that caused a grilling. But he [Obama] did make a very racist comment. Ahhh . . . about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And um, that was something which perhaps shouldn’t have been said about the President, but if you actually assess what he was talking about, he was right.

Moreover, Sean Hannity joined Murdoch in defending Beck’s assertion that Obama is a “racist.” In discussing Beck’s comment, Hannity stated, “But wait a minute. Wait, hang on a second. When the president hangs out with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years, I’m—can one conclude that there are issues with the president, black liberation theology?”

Right-wing pundit Mark Levin went so far as to frame Obama as a cult-like figure whom whites should reasonably fear as heralding the opening stages of a fascist social order:

There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. Special Obama flags and an Obama presidential seal. A graphic with the portrayal of the globe and Obama’s name on it, which adorns everything from Obama’s plane to his street literature. Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama’s name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.

During an October 2008 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Michael Savage stated,

I fear that Obama will stir up a race war. You want to ask me what I fear? I think Obama will empower the racists in this country and stir up a race war in order to seize absolute power. I believe that’s what he will do. It will not be as overt as you may think, but it’ll be a subtle race war on every level imaginable.

As the show went on, Savage took an online caller, who stated,

I absolutely agree with you as far as the race war goes. I think the greatest thing that concerns me about Obama is his resentment toward this country. I feel that him and his wife feel that they have fought very hard against whites, and that everything that they have, they are entitled to versus being thankful and feeling privileged for living in this country, and what this country has provided in terms of opportunities.

To this Savage replied, “Correct. And affirmative action helped both of them, there’s no question about it.”

White viewers of Fox were constantly framed as people who should be frightened and apprehensive about issues pertaining to race. In February 2007 Glenn Beck stated that he doesn’t “have a lot of African-American friends [because] . . . I’m afraid that I would be in an open conversation, and I would say something that somebody would take wrong, and then it would be a nightmare.” In this same vein, Bill O’Reilly stated, “Instead of black and white Americans coming together, white Americans are terrified. They’re terrified. Now we can’t even say you’re articulate? We can’t even give you guys compliments because they may be taken as condescension?” In this way, Fox commentators played up racial fears and anxieties, while painting whites as victims of overly sensitive nonwhites, race-baiters, and political correctness.

Seizing upon this fear, Fox News and right-wing commentators anointed themselves as the real civil rights activists of today’s “anti-white” era. Glenn Beck stated that his Restoring Honor rally was to “reclaim the civil rights movement.” So also, in 2007, Michael Savage stated,

[B]asically, if you’re talking about a day like today, Martin Luther King Junior Day, and you’re gonna understand what civil rights has become, the con it’s become in this country. It’s a whole industry; it’s a racket. It’ s a racket that is used to exploit primarily heterosexual, Christian, white males’ birthright and steal from them what is their birthright and give it to people who didn’t qualify for it. Take a guess out of whose hide all of these rights are coming. They’re not coming out of women’s hides.

Are they? No, there’s only one group that’s targeted, and that group are white, heterosexual males. They are the new witches being hunted by the illiberal left using the guise of civil rights and fairness to women and whatnot.

By stoking racial fears and framing themselves as the true heirs of the Civil Rights Movement, conservative commentators can effectively advance a pro-white agenda that seeks to roll back some of the progressive gains toward equality of the past half-century while mystifying any such overt claim or color-conscious agenda.

These examples illustrate that the white-as-victim narrative both is widely shared and carries resonance across the right-wing media airwaves. Indeed, the story of white victimization is, in our supposedly “post-racial era,” a dominant feature of the media’s obsession with race. The right-wing media calls out to its viewers to identify as racialized white victims. And in competing for audience viewership, networks like Fox attract white viewership by telling them they deserve both social sympathy and a (white) badge of courage for the battle wounds they have received for simply being white. The white audience’s righteous indignation is constructed through a media narrative that tells them they should feel displeasure with the legal initiatives (for example, affirmative action) that are not redressing past discrimination but enacting it upon them in the present. This makes the political quite personal. Such right-wing media discourse reinterprets historical and current patterns into personal attacks in which a black bogey man (today incarnated in the personage of Obama) hates them only because they are white. Importantly, these media messages attempt a paradoxical recovery of white political domination through the discourse of personal white victimization.

Matthew W. Hughey is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law.

[Read a fuller version of this excerpt from The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama by Matthew W. Hughey and Gregory S. Parks on Salon.com.]

Election in Newark: Was Ras Baraka’s win a referendum on Cory Booker?

—Andra Gillespie

Three days ago, Newark, New Jersey ushered in a new era of government when voters elected South Ward Councilman Ras Baraka as the permanent replacement for former Mayor (and now Senator) Cory Booker.

As I noted in The New Black Politician, Baraka and Booker are polar opposites. Booker is the Ivy-League and Oxford educated, suburban-bred son of IBM executives who brought a deracialized campaign persona, neoliberal policy proposals and tremendous national and international attention to the city. Baraka is the son of the late poet Amiri Baraka who brought his parents progressive, nationalist and activist sensibilities into formal politics. The only things these two men share are a common racial identification and birth year.

In the days since Baraka’s victory over law professor and former School Advisory Board Chairman Shavar Jeffries, many have asked whether this week’s election was a referendum on Cory Booker. My response is yes, in part. While Tuesday’s results do shed light on the current status of Booker’s legacy, the interpretation is far more nuanced.

Booker and Jeffries are neither close friends nor formal political allies, but they do have a few things in common. They are both Ivy League educated lawyers. Both have been advocates of school reform. Both employed deracialized campaign techniques to appeal to nonblack voters in Newark. And both were avid fundraisers. As a result of this, there are some similarities in Tuesday’s election results and results from the 2002 Newark mayoral race, where Cory Booker lost to then-Mayor Sharpe James. Booker lost by about 6.5 percentage points; Jeffries lost by about 8 percentage points. In 2002, Booker won the mostly Latino and Portuguese North and East Wards of the city; Jeffries did the same on Tuesday. As Marshall Curry suggests in his documentary Street Fight, Sharpe James had a better field operation in 2002; in 2014, Ras Baraka had a stronger field operation. In both cases, better GOTV contributed to the victor’s margin.

So to what extent was Shavar Jeffries’ defeat a reaction to Cory Booker?  Certainly, Ras Baraka’s base included people who were dissatisfied with the Booker administration. But a majority of voters may have been satisfied with Booker’s performance as mayor. Publicly released polls indicate that Booker had a nearly 70% approval rating in October 2012, and in my own polling in Newark in August and October 2013 put Booker’s unweighted disapproval rating at 37% and 24% respectively (Both of my polls have margins of + 7 points). While more recent news developments about alleged corruption and mismanagement at the Newark Watershed or the city’s $93 million budget deficit have likely tarnished Booker’s reputation, anti-Booker backlash is probably only part of the story.

The insider/outsider dimension probably best explains opposition to Shavar Jeffries.  Jeffries is different from Booker in large part because he is a native son. Born in Newark to a single mother, he was raised in the South Ward by his grandmother after his stepfather murdered his mother. Jeffries became active in the Boys and Girls Club of Newark, and when he finished law school and resettled in his hometown, he became active in the Boys and Girls Club leadership and on the board of a local charter school. While Jeffries was civically engaged, he wasn’t well known outside of his circle. And though Jeffries made an impressive showing in his school board victory, that election, with its low turnout and low visibility, did little to raise his citywide profile. As a result, in October 2012, 77% of Newark voters polled had no idea who he was. If there is anything I have learned about Newarkers in the twelve years I have been conducting research in the city, it is that they really want to get to know their political candidates. That Shavar Jeffries performed as well as he did is notable; however, voters would have to become more comfortable with him in order to elect him as mayor, and that takes time.

There are two parts to the insider/outsider dimension. Voters were paying attention not only to their familiarity with the candidates, but also to the candidates’ backers.  While Baraka assembled a grassroots coalition that was backed by labor unions, Jeffries received a strong assist from the Democratic machine. Political bosses Steve Adubato, George Norcross and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo backed Jeffries, lent volunteers and even raised independent expenditure money to promote Jeffries. This support made this mayoral race competitive, but it raised suspicions among some voters who were concerned about machine influence in Newark politics.

This point demonstrates the biggest difference between Booker and Jeffries. While both candidates attracted support from Wall Street, and while Booker sometimes strategically aligns with the Democratic Party establishment, Booker has largely been viewed as independent of the machine.  While surrogates certainly raise and spend money on his behalf, he is his own fundraising juggernaut. For now, that buys him leverage that Shavar Jeffries does not have. And while Booker is certainly sensitive to the interests of his donors (who can forget the brouhaha when Booker defended his friends in private equity from attacks from the Obama campaign on Meet the Press?), he does not need to rely on independent expenditure support to get elected. No doubt, some of Ras Baraka’s supporters were deeply troubled by Jeffries’ reliance on independent expenditures.

Going forward, Cory Booker’s mayoral legacy will be inextricably tied to Ras Baraka’s legacy.  Each mayor’s performance will reflect on the other. I expect that Baraka will govern differently. As a school principal who has been vocal in his opposition to School Superintendent Cami Anderson, I expect that he will push for a different approach to improving schools. I would also expect him to more heavily scrutinize economic development proposals and be less generous in the tax incentives that his administration offers.

The change in governing style will create conditions for a type of natural experiment where we can determine the effectiveness of neoliberal versus progressive approaches to achieving policy goals like attracting economic development, reducing unemployment and crime and improving housing options for city residents. If Baraka changes the city’s course and Newark thrives, then that will reflect poorly on Booker’s legacy. If Baraka institutes changes and the city falters, though, Booker’s vision will be vindicated.

Andra Gillespie is associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

Should affirmative action be based on income?

Following last week’s Supreme Court decision to uphold a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities, the New York Times’ Room for Debate posed the question: “Should affirmative action be based on income?”

F. Michael Higginbotham, author of Ghosts of Jim Crow, was invited to weigh in on the discussion. Read his response below, and be sure to check out insight from all of the debaters over at the NYT’s Room for Debate.

It’s not time for income-based affirmative action; race-based preference is still vital in the United States given the country’s history of slavery and its continuing, pervasive racial discrimination. To think otherwise is selective memory loss.

The Schuette decision upheld the right of Michigan voters to prohibit affirmative action in admissions to state colleges and universities. But that reasoning is flawed in two ways. First, affirmative action is characterized as an unfair preference rather than a justified remedy. And second, the decision whether to ban affirmative action is left to the electoral process.

To understand this flawed reasoning, one must go back to the beginning of the affirmative action debate during Reconstruction. In the civil rights cases of 1883, the Supreme Court held that the 14th Amendment did not empower Congress to prohibit owners of public accommodations from discriminating against black patrons. The owners were free to decide themselves. In his opinion for the court, Justice Joseph Bradley wondered when black Americans would stop being given special treatment under the law and become mere citizens.

Unfortunately, Schuette seems to embrace this same characterization of affirmative action as preferential treatment that may be prohibited by majority vote. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a plurality, said that voters in Michigan chose to eliminate racial preferences because nothing in the Constitution gives judges the authority to undermine the election results.

Yet, erroneously characterizing affirmative action as an unfair preference allows the court to defer to the electoral process just as it deferred to property owners in the 1880s. Justice Harold Blackmun recognized this error before he retired in 1994. Speaking about a seemingly consistent majority of five Supreme Court Justices on the key civil rights and race relations cases of the 1980s, Blackmun said: “One wonders whether the majority still believes that race discrimination—or, more accurately, race discrimination against non-whites—is a problem in our society, or even remembers that it ever was.”

While 20 years have passed and several new justices have been appointed, racial disparities remain alarmingly wide. Black unemployment, poverty and homelessness are twice that of whites. Wealth accumulation for blacks is one twentieth of what it is for whites. Similar disparities exist for Hispanics. Racial profiling in the criminal justice system is rampant.

Affirmative action raises difficult questions of access and fairness. This country’s continuing failure to significantly reduce de facto discrimination prevents many from receiving equal protection today. Affirmative action helps off set this imbalance.

F. Michael Higginbotham is the Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, former interim dean and the author of Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism In Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2013).

Abortion: Race, rape, and the Right

—Gregory S. Parks

I want to tell you a story. I’m going to ask you all to close your eyes while I tell you the story. . . This is a story about a little girl walking home from the grocery store one sunny afternoon. . . Can you see her? Her raped, beaten, broken body soaked in their urine, soaked in their semen, soaked in her blood, left to die. Can you see her? I want you to picture that little girl. Now imagine she’s white.

The above quote reflects powerful imagery employed by defense attorney Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)—the words spoken in his summation before an all-white, southern jury during the criminal trial of a black father who was being prosecuted for killing the white men who raped, hung, and left his young daughter for dead.

The use of racial imagery like this is nothing new in American culture. Take politics, for example: racial imagery has frequently been used to sway public opinion and win elections. In 1990, when Jesse Helms, a white United States Senator from North Carolina, faced Harvey Gantt, a black challenger, race played a role in Helms’ campaign. Specifically, in an effort to allege that Gantt supported racial quotas that would benefit blacks, Helms ran an advertisement that showed the hands of a white person crumbling an employment rejection letter. “You needed that job,” the announcer said, “and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?” The ad was broadcast a few days before the election, and arguably boosted Helms to victory. This should be of no surprise; social scientists have demonstrated for years that emotion is highly predictive of voters’ judgment and decision-making. Let’s have a little thought experiment that contemplates the extent to which racial imagery might effectuate a change in constituent attitudes in other political spheres today.

Ever since the United States Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which expanded women’s access to abortion, Republicans have sought to reverse those gains. More recently, Republican politicians, including Richard Mourdock (state of Indiana Treasurer), have asserted that life is a gift from God, and abortions should only be allowed when the mother’s life is at risk.

As a justification for the all-out ban on abortion, Todd Akin (former U.S. Representative for Missouri) has touted that in cases of “legitimate rape,” pregnancy is rare because a woman’s body is able to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Some Republicans, such as Joe Walsh (former U.S. Representative for Illinois), believe that there should not even be an exception for cases where the mother’s life may be at risk because, according to Walsh, “’with modern technology and science, you can’t find one instance’ in which a woman would actually die.”

The challenge for such politicians, and those who subscribe to their mode of thinking, is to not to imagine some amorphous victim. Rather, they should, in the words of Jake Brigance, “[n]ow imagine she’s white” and her rapist is black. Would they then feel the same way about abortion in instances of rape? I believe they would not, given the history of race, anti-miscegenation attitudes, and political ideology in America.

In the early 1900s, the mandatory separation of blacks and whites in social settings, referred to as Jim Crow, applied to all aspects of life in the South, including public schools and marriage statutes. The idea of “white womanhood” was a major part of white supremacy and was an essential part of the Jim Crow system in the South. White womanhood was premised on a belief that a “lady” must be white. While it was feared that interracial marriages would lead to the creation of “a mongrel breed of citizens” that would destroy white identity and threaten white supremacy, this was a fear only evident in cases involving white women who married non-white men. White women who brought race-based annulment cases against their husbands were protected from both colored men, as well any accusation from the woman’s husband that attacked her whiteness. When white men had children with black women, it was simply seen as a remnant of the practices observed during slavery.

In most states, the fear of a mongrel race as a result of interracial marriage was only a concern when it involved blacks. However, in Virginia, it was illegal for whites to marry anyone other than another white person. Southerners were alarmed by the increasing number of light skinned blacks, as it blurred the line between black and white and threatened both with supremacy and racial purity. Laws prohibiting miscegenation continued until 1967 when they were declared unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. In Loving, the Virginia Supreme Court had relied primarily upon its earlier holding in Naim v. Naim. That case held that the policy behind Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute was to prevent interracial procreation and the creation of a “mongrel breed of citizens.”

Racial segregation of public schools was a tool for reinforcing both white supremacy, as well as in preserving the purity of the white race, because of the vital, socialization role that schools play. Because public schools have the effect of shaping the beliefs and perspectives of young impressionable children, they were seen as “key social institutions for inculcating racial consciousness in whites and blacks.” By preventing socialization among black and white children, segregation of public schools was able to address the issue of the development of romantic feelings among people of different races, and consequently, the chances that interracial marriage would occur was decreased. In fact, the United States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregation of public schools unconstitutional, led to fears that the socializing of black and white children would lead to interracial marriages, and thus, miscegenation. As a result, the ruling in Brown strengthened the fight against interracial marriage.

In the case of rape, the rape of black women was not even recognized in some states as a criminal offense. However, the rape of a white woman by a black man resulted in sentences for rape that were five times that given for convictions of other rapes and sometimes led to a sentence of death. Even the idea of a black man soliciting a white prostitute was viewed as objectionable.

This anxiety surrounding white women being the victim of black men’s libidinal pangs, concupiscent urges, and exertion of power and violence has not only been a historical and cultural-legal fact, it is contemporary and political. In 1991, a Michigan probate judge, discussing the Michigan law under which minors seeking abortions may request a waiver of the parental consent requirement, stated that he was hesitant to grant waivers but would consider doing so “in some cases, such as incest or when a white girl is raped by a black man.” In 2006, a white Maine couple allegedly kidnapped their pregnant nineteen year-old daughter to take her out of the state to have an abortion, because the father of her child was black.

And while many politicians have viewed abortion as breaking up the American family, President Richard Nixon thought that in the case of a pregnancy involving a black man and a white woman,  abortion was a necessary procedure. This is not surprising, given empirical research demonstrating that whites’ political orientation predicts their own romantic partner preferences. White conservatives, more so than white liberals, are less likely to desire black romantic partners and more so prefer white romantic partners. This preference, and its implications, may not even be conscious; researchers have found that political conservativism is predictive of automatic favoring high status over low status groups as well as whites over blacks.

With all this said, the recent tweet from an anonymous writer on MSNBC’s official Twitter account suggesting that conservatives hate interracial marriages may have been more accurate than inflammatory. (“Maybe the rightwing will hate it, but everyone else will go awww: the adorable new #Cheerios ad w/ biracial family,” the tweet read.) It is this anxiety, or hostility, by some on the political Right against black male/white female interracial love, sex, marriage, and in the worst of scenarios, rape, that should help inform their judgments about abortion.

Gregory S. Parks is Assistant Professor of Law, Wake Forest University School of Law. He is co-author (with Matthew W. Hughey) of The Wrongs of the Right: Language, Race, and the Republican Party in the Age of Obama (NYU Press, 2014).