A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker published this article by Jeffrey Toobin about Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer from Delaware who moved to Alabama decades ago to help criminals, and especially inmates on death row. It includes some very disturbing quotes about justice and race in the Deep South from Stevenson, who has been on the front lines of this battle for a long time. The stories he tells, combined with other evidence, suggest that in several states at least--Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and perhaps parts of others as well--the changes in the last 50 years, since the passage of civil rights legislation, have been more apparent than real, and that the criminal justice system there functions to terrorize the black population, in part by imposing the death penalty. Stevenson argues that at no time did the mass of the white population or its leadership acknowledge that segregation had been wrong. He claims--and I have no reason to doubt him--that after the city of Montgomery de-segregated its buses after the famous boycott of the mid-1950s, vigilantes drove around the city shooting black people as they waited to board them. He also thinks that the death penalty fulfills the same function now that lynching did from the civil war until the 1950s or so, when it finally began to die out: to terrorize the black population. I am afraid that he is right, and I am going to use the article to make some broader points about this history of the South and the United States in general.
In my opinion, the whole history of race relations in the South--as well as issues of criminal justice and the "right to bear arms"--is still a legacy of slavery--but in a very particular sense. Slavery deprived both slave and master of freedom. The slave faced violence if he or she asserted their humanity; the master faced the ever-present possibility of a slave insurrection. Exactly how likely such an insurrection ever was is far from clear. Nat Turner, of course, tried to start one in Virginia in the 1830s, and another slave,. Denmark Vesey, was convicted of plotting one in Charleston some time earlier. (In Vesey's case, a very prominent historian once argued to me that it was far clear that the defendant had done anything at all.) But it was natural enough for white slave owners to imagine that the slaves would take their revenge for what had been done to them if they ever got the chance, and this became one of the many excuses for the maintenance of slavery and, in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, for greater restrictions on free blacks. The loss of that war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments seemed to make the white Southerners' worst nightmares a reality. Even though many of the Reconstruction governments provided the southern states with the first effective state government they had ever had, the whites formed the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize the freed blacks, stop them from voting, and regain political power. They succeeded after the disputed election of 1876, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the Presidency in exchange for his pledge to withdraw federal troops from the South. Both the legal system and extralegal terror kept the black population subservient for decades to come.
As I have written many times, a countervailing and more hopeful trend in southern politics emerged during the New Deal era. The Progressive movement had made some inroads in the South, and by the 1940s, even the states of the Deep South had elected a number of legislators, including future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black of Alabama, who supported the New Deal and took liberal positions on everything except race. After the war, a young Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, emerged not only as a leading Democratic progressive--he nearly was nominated for President in 1952--but also as a supporter of civil rights for Negroes. But this trend did not survive the successes of the civil rights movement. The white liberal became extinct south of the Mason Dixon line, in elected office at any rate, and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, southern politics began polarizing along racial lines once again. The civil rights movement's decision to press for majority black districts contributed to this trend. "Christian values," as I have come to understand, became a new code word for southern white solidarity. Meanwhile, the governing establishment lured northern businesses to the south with promises of a union-free environment. Others, alas, can play that game as well, and now many of those same industrial jobs have migrated once again, this time to the third world.
Alas, real-world developments fed southern fears. The victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s did in fact coincide with the beginning of a very big crime wave that lasted for nearly three decades. The Boom generation was both large and violent, and the rate of violent crimes nationwide more than doubled from 1960 to 1969, and increased by an additional 50% from 1969 to 1979. (The biggest increases, in rapes, may have owed something to better reporting. Murder rates doubled from 1960 to 1979.) When politicians like George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Nelson Rockefeller called for harsher measures against crime in the late 1960s, they were not making up the problem out of whole cloth. In the South and most of the rest of the rest of the country as well, the criminal justice system went on a counteroffensive. One form this took was the reinstitution of the death penalty, which the Supreme Court had provisionally outlawed in the late 1960s. It has indeed been most popular in the South. Rates of violent crime did not peak until 1993, by which time the murder rate was 50% higher than in 1960. They then began to fall, slowly at first and more quickly in the last decade, and by 2010 the murder rate was down to the level of 1970.
Meanwhile, the nature of the American gun rights movement changed as well. When gun control first became a political issue in the 1960s in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, its opponents stressed the rights of sportsmen. By the 1990s such rights had become secondary. Americans, the NRA increasingly argued, needed guns for two reasons: to protect their homes and families, and to defend against the encroachments of a potentially totalitarian state. At the recent Republican Convention, an NRA spokesman raised the example of a single mother with children alone in her home, facing a dangerous burglar, who would have to wait 10 minutes for help if she dialed 911. This is an echo of white southern fears of slave insurrections--and a most inappropriate one, given how rare violent crime that crosses neighborhood boundaries has become.
Donald Trump hails from New York, but he has played upon traditional white southern fears from the beginning of his campaign. He began his new phase of political activism, of course, as a birther, and in the announcement of his candidacy he identified Mexican immigrants as "rapists." (He borrowed that from his devoted supporter Anne Coulter.) Now his speeches feature detailed references to a handful of Americans who have been killed by illegal immigrants. He claims, without any foundation, that violent crime has never been worse. And he is gaining ground. Three weeks ago, fivethirtyeight.com showed him with an 11% chance of winning. Today that chance is up to 27%. The civil rights movement succeeded in eliminating racist language from elite public discourse, but that did not eliminate racist fears and feelings from the populace at large.
Hillary Clinton seems to have reduced her whole platform to a single plank: that she should be elected because she is not Donald Trump. That may not be inspiring enough to carry her to victory. This election looms as perhaps the most tribal in American history. The cures for tribalism are a belief in reason, on the one hand, and a common national enterprise on the other. Neither one, at the moment, is very strong in the United States.