This post is the first of what I hope will become a weekly feature here at Public Secrets: reviews of books I’ve read that I think will be of interest to you. Today we’re starting off with a book I just finished, Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race:
I have to admit I was a bit wary of buying this book: not being familiar with Mr. Bartlett’s other work, just going by the title I was afraid this would be a red-meat tossing, conservative bomb-thrower of a book, meant more to entertain movement conservatives than educate and inform.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
Wrong on Race is an examination of the history of the Democratic Party with regard to the race question: How did the party respond to the challenge of dealing with non-White people? In the orthodox history we’re taught in school, written mostly by left-liberal historians, the Democratic Party is the party of civil rights, fighting for justice for the oppressed of all races. We learn of FDR’s push for non-discrimination in employment in the defense industry in World War II, Truman’s integration of the military, and LBJ’s ramming through of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This is the legacy the Democrats celebrate today and is the basis of their claim to an almost monolithic hold on the African-American vote. In this history, Democrats are always for the victim of racial discrimination, while the Republican is largely uncaring, if not actively hostile.
Not so fast, writes Bartlett. The real history of the Democrats and race is a lot dirtier than we are told, while the Republicans, albeit not perfect, don’t get enough credit.
He begins by looking at the origins of the Democratic Party under Jefferson and Jackson, recounting both Jefferson’s bizarre views on race and the ethnic cleansing of the Indians from Georgia under Jackson, which was strongly supported by Democrats and opposed by Whigs. He looks at the various sectional compromises between the North and the South prior to the Civil War, with the Democrats always taking the position of preserving and expanding slavery.
Post-war, Bartlett looks at Reconstruction and how an early incarnation of the KKK and other White paramilitary groups opposed Republican efforts to guarantee civil rights for the new freedmen, in effect acting as the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party. Indeed, after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the South became almost wholly Democratic as the Black vote and the Republican Party were suppressed by means legal and terroristic. Bartlett points out that Jim Crow, the racial segregation laws that can only be described as apartheid, was constructed in the 1890s by Democratic governors and legislatures in the South.
Bartlett then looks at specific important racist political figures in three states: Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi — Democrats all. He discusses the segregation of the federal government under Democrat Woodrow Wilson, and the failure in reality of the FDR administration to do much of substance for African-Americans. Later chapters briefly cover the administrations from Truman to Reagan, taking a similarly revisionist view.
Wrong on Race doesn’t paint all Democrats as racist blackguards. Far from it. The author recognizes that, beginning in the late 40s, the Democratic Party gradually came to embrace civil rights as it became clear that the racist “Southern bloc” was crumbling and that liberal Democrats didn’t have to pander to their Southern colleagues on issues of race anymore. He lauds Truman as an under-appreciated hero of civil rights and gives LBJ, who once ran on a platform as racist as any, credit for the seeing how the political calculus had changed.
The author also demands fair treatment for Republicans, pointing to the various civil rights acts enacted during Reconstruction (and voided by Democrats); the acts passed under Eisenhower and his willingness to use federal troops to enforce school desegregation; and Nixon’s aggressive enforcement of civil rights. (That last surprised me.)
In his conclusion, Bartlett argues, correctly, I think, that the almost total adherence of Blacks to the Democratic Party has been bad for African-American interests in US politics. Democrats take them for granted, and Republicans write their votes off as forever lost. He lauds the growing movement to encourage Blacks to register as independents to encourage both parties to compete for their votes. Finally, he makes an interesting proposal on the touchy issue of reparations for slavery: a grand bargain in which the Republicans would offer a one-time round of reparations in return for ending all affirmative action and other race and gender-based preferences. I’ve been staunchly opposed to reparations for various reasons, but I have to admit I find this idea intriguing.
Finally, another point in favor of this book is the footnoting: perhaps in recognition of the controversial nature of his topic, Bartlett extensively footnotes every chapter. I admit I’m a footnote nut; I like being able to check an author’s sources and read explications of various side issues. Mr. Bartlett is to be commended, and this practice is one I wish other authors were as devoted to.
In sum, I recommend Wrong on Race as a necessary corrective to the unbalanced presentation of our political history on the question of race. Bruce Bartlett performs a laudable service by presenting facts we have forgotten and forcing Democrats to face the truth about their party’s past, and for posing thought-provoking proposals. Do yourself a favor and at least check it out from your local library.