Sunday, December 31, 2006

There Goes the Neighborhood Redemption

Not a big Jefferson fan (big talker, erratic and neurotic walker, wish he would have just once lived up to the fine words in his memorial) but one thing he said has always stuck with me (besides that Declaration thing). He said that he prayed for this nation when he considered that God was just. He was talking about slavery and its long-term damage to our country, clear and threatening even then. And on this at least, he's turned out right.

Race and the people who continue today to claim superiority based on it (as strongly if less vigorously and overtly as a rule than in the old days) have corrupted our American Legacy, what we literally fought the Civil War over, ever since. They still dominate Southern politics and, through gerrymandering, outright mendacity, and idiot media, our national politics as well, despite our best efforts to deny it. Like Holocaust deniers, our inability to confront the evil in our midst then and now still poisons our democracy, our potential, and our legacy even today.

Some people do get it, and some of those people write books. Two of the better ones out right now are
There Goes the Neighborhood by William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub and Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War by Nicholas Lemann. The former is an examination by the authors and a cadre of students of the recent history and demographic changes of 4 Chicago neighborhoods. One in a stable white community just experiencing (and resisting) Latino newcomers; another, a white-to-Latino transitional neighborhood; another, a community that has fully undergone that white-to-Latino shift; and the last, a stable African-American community. Through interviews with current and former residents, they track how the development and use (or not) of community institutions and standards impacted the (in)stability of each neighborhood. It's a quick but deep read of the ebb and flow of people, communities, stability and instability that any general reader can gain from. (Plus, it borrows heavily from the conceptual framework of one of my favorite books ever, Albert Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty, to which I have sung hosannas in the past.)

Neighborhood is valuable not only as a study of contemporary impacts and perceptions of race and how we get to our current politics and social (dis)order. It's also a nice reminder of the intricacies of racial perceptions. Residents of the stable African-American community are just as resistant to lower class blacks as their white counterparts in that other neighborhood, not to mention their distrust of Latinos. And Latinos are far more likely to side with whites on most issues than with their "minority" counterparts. The authors do note how education or other issues can unite all groups, or two against the third, but, as Nicolas Vaca pointed out in the terrific The Presumed Alliance, the superficial perceptions of majority v. united minorities is just not accurate. Political strategy based on it will likely fail, although that doesn't stop pundits from talking their usual silliness.

Neighborhood is a short quick read that will leave you a little disquieted but basically feeling informed. Redemption is a short quick read that will leave you very disquieted and feeling very pissed and aware that the Southern style of politics we've suffered through in recent decades is deeply embedded in our national DNA. Lemann is not my favorite writer, too old school and Beltway, too disdainful of blogs and ruffians at the journalistic cotillion, but he does this topic well. Describing the fall of Reconstruction through the success of white militias in LA and MS and the wimpy, ineffective leadership and opposition of a major political party (sound familiar??), his work leaves echoes of today's politics pounding in your ears. (And sends a message about ultimately self-defeating vacillating and equivocating for political expediency that will likely chill your bones.)

I personally wanted to pound heads as he detailed the way the right-wing cancer of that period blustered its way into an overthrow of the Northern Civil War victory. The re-writing of this crucial period's history by "professional" historians in the aftermath in the name of "keeping us all together" and being tired of confrontation of evil is so infuriating and unjust that it rivals all the disingenuous b------t spewed by academics, pundits, and political "leaders" today. And, sure enough, there are plenty of "let's understand and get along" moral weaklings at every step of the betrayal of the War and the people it freed.

It's very easy to play the game of picturing who from then and who from now could have traded places without skipping a beat. (All the idiotic praise of Ford and his binding up and enabling of the infection that Nixon and his people injected into our national veins to bring us to the potentially fatal point we find ourselves today provides plenty of great examples, and if that was too
"annoying" and "defeatist," Atrios, when you mature at least a little, maybe you can learn some of the history your econ teachers taught you to ignore.) We had it in our power to institutionalize the American Legacy for all people of all colors, and we threw it away with vacillation, cowardice, temporizing, weariness, and unwillingness to stand for principle. Everything Dr. King was still condemning from his Birmingham jail cell almost a century later. (And don't get me started on JFK, who at the end of the books shows his true patronizing and ignorant shades.)

The scariest thing about this horribly enlightening book is the realization you get that "leaders" like we have today on all sides can throw away decades and generations simply through expediency and ignorance. For example, the justification for not sending federal troops into MS to ensure an honest election in the face of militant, organized white bigots was that it would hurt Republicans in the coming states like OH. Well, they won in OH. And threw away the South. Which they have now regained by adopting the same aggression of those militant, organized white bigots. And the rest of us get to live with that legacy.

God is just.