Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Trouble with Moralizing History

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great piece about violence and housing in Chicago at his blog as well as a follow up.  They are both quite good and you should read them, but they did highlight one of the more problematic things with this type of moralized history, that is Coates' attempt to ascribe his own moral framework onto the realities of the past.  Now of course we should be willing to make moral judgements of the past, Mary I was religious fanatic and bad person, but by ascribing our contemporary views and values we can obscure the realities of that period and in a way confuse history and make learning from it even more difficult.

Coates' posts are about the history of segregation in Chicago, especially during the middle of the 20th century, and how communal violence (what he calls terrorism) was used to do things like enforce de facto segregation.  He's quite right that the illegal or extra-legal tools of riots, housing covenants and actions of trade groups like professional realtors associations did succeed in creating a city more segregated that many in the south.  Coates ascribes the reasons for this as simply "white supremacy."  Right off the bat this is problematic, because of Coates intellectual background in African American Studies he is ascribing a very particular view of race that isn't very helpful for understanding race in that period.  Ironically this same problem bedeviled Martin Luther King when he led a large scale protest movement in Chicago in the mid-60's.  As Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor pointed out in their great biography of then Mayor Richard J. Daley American Pharaoh, "And to [SCLC] southerners used to a region where almost everyone fell into the simple category of "black" and "white," Chicago was a confusing array of Irish, Poles, Jews, Lithuanians, and other ethnic groups."  Coates is falling into the same trap, by ignoring the very real divisions between groups in Chicago that didn't fall into the simplistic categories of "black" and "white" he's missing a lot of what's really going on.  Just like saying that the recent mini-riot in South high school was "racial" misses just how complicated human identity can be and isn't very helpful.

In addition, Coates simplistic portrait of "whites" oppressing "blacks" ignores the very important internal conflicts that went on inside these communities at the same time violence was being used to enforce housing lines.  As Cohen and Taylor point out:
Another thing the SCLC was unprepared for when it arrived in Chicago was the opposition it would face from significant parts of the black community.  "Chicago was the first city that we ever went to as members of the SCLC staff where black ministers and black politicians told us to go back where we came from," says Dorothy Tillman, then a young SCLC staff member from Alabama...Some Chicago blacks professed to be as offended as Daley that outsiders were coming and telling them what to do.  "Dr. King can move into Alabama and say, 'This is it,'" said the Reverend W. H. Nichols, a West Side minister, "but here in Chicago each man stands on his own two feet."  To some on the SCLC staff, the black opposition seemed to be rooted in years of oppression by whites...But the truth was, much of the opposition came not because Chicago black were powerless, but because they had more power than blacks in the rural South.  Daley, who needed black votes in a way that southern politicians did not, had handed out elected offices, patronage jobs, and money in the black community, and had singled out a few Dawsons and Metcalfes to represent blacks on a citywide level.  These black leaders, and their armies of patronage workers, had a personal state in the status quo, in a way no blacks in Selma or Birmingham did.
These historical realities, that some black Chicago leaders supported the status quo not because they had to, but because it was in their own personal interests to do so, is a crucial part of the story Coates is trying to tell.  But it has been completely dropped from his telling of history, the same way many conservative versions of this period in history paints a strange picture in which no one was really opposed to civil rights or that the real story of racism begins with Tawana Brawley.

Finally, by ascribing the realities of race in mid 20th Century Chicago to "white supremacy" and economics Coates has missed the crucial reality that the policy of desegregating housing represented far more than just a threat to whites racism.  It represented the end of the City's entire political structure as it was then constructed, which included 40,000 patronage jobs, 14 members of Congress and perhaps 1,000,000 votes on election day.  Again Cohen and Taylor:
Daley's opposition to King was also rooted in simple politics.  King's prescription for Chicago would have freed blacks to move out of the ghetto and into white neighborhoods.  If King succeeded in integrating Chicago, it would change the demographic layout of the city to the detriment of the machine.  Blacks would move out of the traditional black wards, where ward committeemen and precinct captains had for years been turning them out consistently for the machine's candidates.  And when blacks moued in, whites would flee their neighborhoods for the suburbs, cutting into another important part of the machine base.  Just as troubling, the civil rights movement challenged the machine's careful racial balancing act.  The machine held on to black votes by giving the black community patronage jobs rather than civil rights, and it held on to the white vote by assuring the Bungalow Belt that it would not be integrated.  If integration became a real possibility, the machine would be challenged from the left in black wards, by independent candidates promising to fight hard for integration.  And in the white wards, white backlash candidates would run to the machine's right, promising to be more outspoken in opposition to open housing.
Asking white politicians like Daley to accept integration was asking them to accept the end of their political power-a power that could pick governors and presidential nominees-and that was simply not the way of the machine.  Perhaps they should have supported desegregation and accepted the end of their political power and life's work for moral reasons, but the fact that they refused to and instead fought against integration for so long should surprise no one.

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