I’m in the middle of Kevin Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, and I just cannot recommend it enough, so far. My only complaint is that Princeton University Press put 43 lines to the page so you feel like you have to slog through about eight million words before you get to turn to the next page and Jesus Christ if Princeton is putting 43 lines on a 6×9 page what does that mean for the rest of us? And there’s six blank pages in the book!
I need my eyes for the rest of my life, Princeton! Shoot.
Anyway, the content of the book is just blowing my mind. I don’t know what historians call it when, instead of looking at the “important” people in history, you look at the every day folks–we used to call it social history but then there was some disagreement about whether that was the right term and then I stopped paying attention. But this book is basically a look at ordinary white folks in Atlanta and their efforts to keep from desegregating.
And I have now reached a paragraph in the book that has blown my mind so much that I have to share it with you.
Here’s what you need to know so far. First, that black people are basically shut out of voting in the whole state of Georgia, even though it’s legal. But, in Atlanta, they’ve formed a voting bloc powerful enough to sway elections. Also, the rural white Democrats have some political animosity towards the white urban elites of Atlanta. So, the white urban elites and the black leaders band together. What we might call everyday white folks in Atlanta, by and large, do not want to live near black folks, because they believe that having black people in your neighborhood lowers property values. It also, of course, being during segregation, can cause your schools and parks to switch from being whites only to blacks only. But the black neighborhoods in Atlanta are becoming so crowded that black people are buying property in white neighborhoods just to have someplace to live.
And there’s white resistance. In the late forties, the resistance was first some of the earliest neo-Nazis, who were incredibly violent and scary, and then the Klan, who started out less violent and scary (which ought to be a clue about the neo-Nazis), but who escalated, and then all white neighborhood groups who started out less violent and scary than the Klan, but escalated, which makes sense because it was many of the same people in leadership, just trying to find a way to get their way without turning other whites off to their message (which the violence tended to do).
So, (and I’m paraphrasing mightly here) finally, after much violence, a group of white elites and black realtists (they couldn’t be realtors, because of racist crap) is appointed to sort out which neighborhoods are really white neighborhoods and shall remain white and which neighborhoods are not really neighborhoods and can be integrated, which, in effect means, that they become black.
Okay, and here we go, to the point:
The working-class whites who lived in transitional areas assumed that they and their neighbors shared not only the common traits of race and class but also common interests in preserving segregation in their neighborhood and the status quo in local politics. During the course of residential desegregation, however, they discovered that their supposed common ground on these issues and identities was ultimately less important for them and their neighbors than one’s self-interest. As long as individual home owners felt that their individual needs–protecting property values and maintaining a stable home–could be met by working with their neighbors, they did so. Invariably, though, when some whites decided that their needs and the neighborhood’s diverged, they resolved to act on their own and in their own self interest, regardless of the repercussions. The reality of individuality, these whites quickly realized, would always trump the rhetoric of community. And so, during the course of residential desegregation, as more and more working-class white Atlantans made this discovery, they thought of themselves less and less as participants in a larger society, with the attendant rights and responsibilities. For them, connections to other whites, on the same street, in the same neighborhood, or in the city at large, had been proved pointless. Instead of thinking in terms of their supposed community, these working-class whites now started to think of themselves as individuals, set apart from and, indeed, set against the rest of Atlanta.
Whew. It’s a lot, but it’s the kind of a lot that makes you go, “Oh, so that’s how it happened.”
I have a lot of thoughts about this, but what strikes me most is how, in an effort to find a solution to their problems that would also let the power structure stay in place, you end up with a mess that still has repercussions that ripple out down history. There are large hunks of white folks still who don’t see ourselves as a part of a community, but set against the community.
You don’t have to squint very hard to see the English-only debate in these terms–on the one hand, you have a bunch of community leaders of all stripes saying “Vote against it, it will be very bad for us” and on the other hand, you have “Those folks aren’t ‘us,’ shoot, you liberal elites aren’t ‘us.'” And it’s not hard to see that same motion on the part of white separatists, to try to find a way of delivering their message that will make it appealing to the broadest possible base, while keeping the threat of violence hidden from public scrutiny.
And the truth is that you have to act in some way. So, I’m not going to sit here and dog on the people of Atlanta. White separatists were going to find some way to motivate people one way or another. And it’s true that none of the white elites would have had power for very long if they’d recognized that their wanting to hold onto power was adding to the problems. And it’s also true that, if we wait around for only perfect people to act perfectly, nothing will ever get done.
But looking at that moment in that paragraph, when working-class white people realize that playing the white supremacist game within the context of a segregated society still screwed them over, even though they were supposed to have white supremacy, and seeing them decide that community was the problem* and that they must practice a kind of individual white separatism, instead, just blew my socks off. Could there have been some other choice? Some way of getting them to let go of white separatism but hold onto community?
Maybe not, but one wonders.
*Kruse makes so clear in this book, without being too overly explicit about it, how “community” and “society” come to equal “communism” and “socialism” and how the individual somehow becomes equal to “Democracy” that it blows my mind. Do younger Southern Republicans who call liberals “communists” and “socialists” know that resonation, how closely those words are linked to “race-mixing” or not? When I look at the last election here in Tennessee, I do kind of feel like they do.
It’s almost a PETA-level shenanigan. where you almost wonder if the American Life League isn’t a Planned Parenthood front. I mean, “Anti-abortion people want to steal your donuts”?! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Well, fine. If that’s what it takes. First they wanted to control what goes in my uterus; now they want to control what goes in your mouth. It would have seemed like a stretch of an argument too far for any pro-choice person to make and yet, here it is: fact.