Too many are trapped by post-Reconstruction past

Greenwich-Voices-JohnsonThose who believe that President Obama is plagued by scandals, leadership failures, lack of accomplishments and impeachable offenses are likely living in the conservative media establishment bubble and don’t yet quite comprehend what’s going on.

This condition of “under-knowing-ness” is like what happened to poor Southern whites during the post-Reconstruction period of the 1880s and 1890s. In 1880, seven of 12 children and one in seven voters were illiterate, something that disproportionally was true in the South. Millions of Southerners, across racial lines, were “growing up in absolute ignorance of the English alphabet,” warned Henry W. Blair, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education and Labor Committee.

This was considered a national crisis since literacy was thought to be “a prerequisite for solving moral degeneration, economic lethargy, and uninformed voting.”

In 1877, the government abandoned federal protection for post-slavery Southern blacks and afterward  to keep African Americans from gaining power there. It was necessary for white Southern politicians to establish literacy as a prerequisite for voting rights. At the time, about 50% of African Americans were illiterate compared to the national average among whites of about 7%. This was due mostly to enforced under-education of blacks during slavery.

To address this glaring issue, in 1881 Mr. Blair proposed legislation that would grant $100 million in federal funding (which is $2.3 billion in today’s dollars) toward literacy instruction for black and white children, to be allotted to states in proportion to their illiteracy levels. According to historian Constance Chen, “Northern and southern educators, southern independents and Republicans, and African Americans, among others, strongly endorsed the Blair Education Bill,” as did President Benjamin Harrison.

But, although 75% of the funding would have gone to Southern states  with the resultant large majority of spending toward the education of Caucasian kids, and although the bill passed the Senate three times, the House refused to ever consider it. In other words, the calculus was that it was better to resist literacy at all, even for whites, than to enable freedom and equality for blacks.

Sadly, that programming kept the South woefully behind educationally in ways that still plague it today. For example, 10 of the 12 states with the nation’s lowest percentage of high school graduates are former Confederate states.

In modern times, this approach morphed into the “Southern Strategy,” used by Republicans to regain and retain support in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans. However, the election and re-election of President Obama proved beyond any doubt that this strategy has been rendered useless.

Today’s anti-government sentiment is coded wishful yearning to go back to the federal abandonment that led to post-Reconstruction, which allowed prevailing racist doctrines the local autonomy required to make them so effective back then in the form of Jim Crow.

But what’s different today is not only that people are more literate, but also that they’re more literate in more ways than anyone ever imagined. It’s simply no longer possible to fool all of the people even a fraction of the time.

That’s why it seems so strange that Republicans keep trying to do so. Shifting their efforts toward concocted narratives on women, sexuality, “scandals,” “national security,” “leadership” and related fantasies is practically tantamount to conceding defeat, not only in the 2014 elections but also in presidential elections for a generation to come.

What’s going on is that voters prefer real debate. Furthermore, the world and the nation have shifted, not just demographically but toward human progress in a new age of greater consciousness about one another and our surroundings.

Try to become literate on this shift, and aligned with it, or risk being left behind.


Claude Johnson is a local business owner, author and former Democratic candidate for the Connecticut General Assembly. You may follow him on Twitter @claudejohnson and @blackfives.

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