Civil Rights, White Supremacist, and Racially Conservative Movements

By Kim Ebert

One of the most significant achievements of the Civil Rights Movement is the steady decline in overt racism and de jure discrimination. This accomplishment is among the reasons why scholars of social movements are encouraged to continue to study and learn from the origins, maintenance, and consequences of the Civil Rights Movement. The decline in explicit racism also has generated considerable research on the somewhat puzzling persistence of the white supremacist movement within a social and political environment that ostensibly is hostile to such blatant forms of racism. Yet while the scholarship on social movements has offered great insight and clarity on the dynamics of racism and racial inequality, this tendency to focus on the extremities of racial-political activities – the Civil Rights and white supremacist movements – has unintentionally obscured the transformation of racism and the new ways prejudice and privilege manifest in social movements.

While scholars within the field of racial and ethnic relations have investigated the post-civil rights shift in racial ideologies, comparatively little research has been done on a corresponding transformation in racial-political organizing of racial conservatives that act to protect white interests. Overt racism was among the ways that long-term systems of inequality between whites and non-whites was maintained. While white supremacists still justify inequality in terms of biological differences or innate characteristics that render racial and ethnic minorities naturally inferior to whites, such explicitly racial explanations have long been deemed socially unacceptable. As a result, the way we interpret racial and ethnic inequality and the corresponding tools activists use to perpetuate discrimination has changed dramatically in the post-Civil Rights era. Today, the dominant racial ideology – or the “interpretation of reality and…set of normative prescriptions that serve [the dominant group’s] interests” (Jackman and Muha 1984:759) – approximates what scholars refer to as colorblind racial ideology.

The ideology of colorblindness is part of a general position of racial conservatism, which avoids hateful speech, violence, and overt expressions of racism. It rests primarily on the belief that race is no longer noticed by most individuals, and as such, patterns of inequality that fall along racial lines are outcomes of cultural- or individual-level shortcomings rather than discrimination. Colorblind ideology holds that the elimination of legal obstacles to equality of opportunity allows for individual success regardless of race and ethnicity, and that any government action beyond removing formal barriers to equality of opportunity violates the fundamental principles upon which America was founded (Bonilla-Silva 2013; Doane 2007; Forman and Lewis 2006; Gallagher 2003).

Racial conservatives thus emerged as an important adaptation to these shifts in the racial-political environment, but unlike white supremacists, they did not engage in explicit or active racial backlash. Over time, racial conservatives began to argue that policies like busing and affirmative action violated cherished American principles such as freedom, individual liberty, hard work, and equality of opportunity. In doing so, they took many of the arguments used in civil rights efforts and turned them on their head.

The logic of the shift to colorblind ideology is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the words of Lee Atwater, architect of the “Southern Strategy,” which relied on these outwardly race-neutral appeals to mobilize whites:

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and 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… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’ – Lee Atwater in 1981, on the Southern Strategy, explaining the Republican Party shift away from overt racism toward seemingly non-racial political issues (Perlstein 2012).

Thus, while racial conservatives echo the colorblind ideals of the Civil Rights Movement, their use of this rhetoric ultimately promotes an ideology that protects and reinforces the privileged position of whites. In turn, the use of colorblind or non-racial framing strategies has delegitimized other framing strategies that were based on a racial or an ethnic group identity. Put differently, the shift to colorblindness has been a successful strategy that has delegitimized minority group rights claims in particular. As the demographic dominance of the white race is declining and ethnoracial diversity is increasing due to new patterns of immigration, the shift to colorblind racial ideology to justify mobilization among racial conservatives has become an even more valuable means of sustaining white privilege.

Undoubtedly in the eyes of scholars of social movements, the dearth of research on the transformation in racial-political organizing is a significant oversight considering that ideologies are not generated by individuals, nor are they formed in a vacuum. Indeed, ideologies are created, challenged, manipulated, and amplified collectively in an active political environment, by groups of people that are strategizing with and against each other through a dynamic and relational process (Blumer 1958). While existing studies on the Civil Rights and white supremacist movements continue to provide valuable insights about racial-politics in the post-Civil Rights era, the origins, maintenance, and consequences of racially conservative mobilization in relation to these movements will likely offer equally important insights about continuing ethnoracial inequality.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Origins of Social Movements

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