The Racial Thaw

January 19, 2009 8:34 a.m.

It’s a cliche that people who came of age after the civil rights movement, can’t imagine the world of Jim Crow and segregation that preceded them. To a lesser extent, at 45–I turn 46 on Wednesday–I find it slightly hard to explain what America’s racial environment was like in the late 80s and early nineties when I was the same age as some of my new colleagues at TPM. While in some ways the country had advanced from the 60s and 70s–some indicia were encouraging such as more black elected officials–there was a deep well of despair about race relations in ways that now seem puzzling if not quaint.

Intellectuals were authentically worried about the rise of Louis Farrakhan in the mid 80s and the crowds he would draw for his conspiratorial rants. The debate over afrocentrism roiled intellectual circles. The surge of interest in Malcolm X seemed to mark an end of King-era reconciliation. The persistence of seemingly intractible black poverty was a source of endless debate. Charles Murray‘s rightfully maligned “The Bell Curve” suggested that IQ might be partially to blame. In popular culture, I think it would be hard to overstate the unsettling feeling many whites had seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” which began with what then seemed like a menacing rendition of Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s “Fight the Power” to its riotous end. After all, Howard Beach and Rodney King and Crown Heights followed as did the LA Riots and later the O.J. Simpson verdict which led to a national moment of soul searching that seems a lifetime away from the events of this week. Clearly there was some kind of thaw in race relations between then and now. I say that with the obvious caveat that racism persists, all is not right, etc, and yet….here we are on the eve of the Obama presidency.

Why is America’s racial atmosphere less poisonous than it was then?

I have a few thoughts which aren’t easily quantifiable but I think went a long way towards easing things. First, I think the drop in crime and teen pregnancy in the 90s helped ease some of the fear of whites. (Of course, there was plenty of racism before the spike in out-of-wedlock births among blacks and whites.) But if you read a book like Tom Edsall’s very smart “Chain Reaction” or Joanathan Rieder’s “Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism.” you see how much of white atitudes and voting patters were driven by fears–exaggerated nonetheless but real–about black-on-white crime. When those problems eased, race relations, I think did. Some issues like court-ordered school busing vanished from the scene. Second, I think the wholesale absorption of hip-hop culture into the white culture helped. What once seemed menacing, became mainstream. (Flavor Flav is now a middle age, buffoonish figure.) I think Bill Clinton’s ease with African-Americans helped and his appointment of large numbers of African Americans. I don’t want to say anything nice about George W. Bush on my first day at TPM but I think appointing two African American secretaries of state, fifth in the line of succession, made it easier to envision a President Obama. Affirmative Action, still a contentious issue in American life, seems to have lost much of its divisive power as its become engrained. And the oft-remarked demographic changes in America, the surge of immigration especially, made the tableau more complicated.

When Barack Obama looks out from the Capitol tomorrow there will be endless commentary on how American changed since King spoke at the other end of the Mall. But what’s less commented upon but still worth noting is how America changed in the last 25 years.

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