The North’s victory in the Civil War did not bring peace. Instead, emancipation brought white resentment that the good ol’ days of black subjugation were over. Legislatures throughout the South scrambled to reinscribe white supremacy and restore the aura of legitimacy that the anti-slavery campaign had tarnished. Lawmakers in several states created the Black Codes, which effectively criminalized blackness, sanctioned forced labor and undermined every tenet of democracy. Even the federal authorities’ promise of 40 acres — land seized from traitors who had tried to destroy the United States of America — crumbled like dust.
It’s more subtle — less overtly racist — than in 1865 or even 1954. It’s a remake of the Southern Strategy, crafted in the wake of the civil rights movement to exploit white resentment against African Americans, and deployed with precision by Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. As Reagan’s key political strategist, Lee Atwater, explained in a 1981 interview: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N-----, n-----, n-----.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n-----’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights’ and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that.” (The interview was originally published anonymously, and only years later did it emerge that Atwater was the subject.)
So when you think of Ferguson, don’t just think of black resentment at a criminal justice system that allows a white police officer to put six bullets into an unarmed black teen. Consider the economic dislocation of black America. Remember a Florida judge instructing a jury to focus only on the moment when George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin interacted, thus transforming a 17-year-old, unarmed kid into a big, scary black guy, while the grown man who stalked him through the neighborhood with a loaded gun becomes a victim. Remember the assault on the Voting Rights Act. Look at Connick v. Thompson, a partisan 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2011 that ruled it was legal for a city prosecutor’s staff to hide evidence that exonerated a black man who was rotting on death row for 14years. And think of a recent study by Stanford University psychology researchers concluding that, when white people were told that black Americans are incarcerated in numbers far beyond their proportion of the population, “they reported being more afraid of crime and more likely to support the kinds of punitive policies that exacerbate the racial disparities,” such as three-strikes or stop-and-frisk laws.