Sunday, April 29, 2012

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2012, April 29: James Kilpatrick and the rebranding of white racist conservatism

James Kilpatrick (1920–2010) was an influential Southern columnist whose late columns and a biographical sketch can still be found at Townhall, the hardline conservative website not known for high journalistic integrity, to put it politely. He had a nationally syndicated column for years beginning in 1964. His work appeared in such conservative venues Human Events, National Review, and the reliably stodgy US News and World Report.

William Hustwit looks at how Kilpatrick changed his framing of issues from that of hardline Southern resistance to segregation to a more clean-shaven conservatism in "From Caste to Color Blindness: James J. Kilpatrick's Segregationist Semantics" The Journal of Southern History 77/3 (Aug 2011). As the title implies, Kilpatrick's changes in the way he framed issues didn't imply a change in his basic thinking about race or other issues. It did imply a recognition that de jure segregation, aka Jim Crow, could no longer be sustained. Kilpatrick began to present opposition to racial equality in terms more congenial to the Republican Party's Southern strategy than to the raw demagoguery of George Wallace.

Hustwit defines the redefined framework this way:

Not long after the heyday of the civil rights movement, Kilpatrick and other conservative leaders congratulated themselves for acquiescing in the end of the old racial order, for protecting average Americans from the excesses of the state, and for recognizing African American equality before the law. Seeming to accept the black freedom struggle, the political Right absorbed the language of the civil rights protesters. As a result, late-twentieth-century conservatism's attitudes about race appeared almost indistinguishable from liberalism.
That last sentence probably deserves some amplification. The idea of "color-blind" conservative language is "almost indistinguishable from liberalism" at the now-proverbial 30,000-foot level. It doesn't endorse overt white supremacy. And in its more sophisticated forms, it can be somewhat confusing. In practice, it's mainly the kind of double-reverse reasoning that for some reason is especially appealing to conservatives, e.g., taking the exact same position that an overt white supremacist would take only claiming to do so because you are opposed to racism.

In practice, it's a shtick that fools mainly people who want to be fooled. Unfortunately, there are quite a few white folks who want to be fooled in this way.

Hustwit gives a good description of the marketing posture involved:

Committed to a color-blind version of the law and to the end of racially discriminatory policies, both conservatives and liberals agreed that racism no longer
had a place in contemporary America. In the late 1960s, many conservative intellectuals and politicians disavowed racism, recognizing that it was becoming a disgraceful point of view. Turning away from the Right's opposition to or indifference toward black rights, these conservatives looked boldly toward the future.
What did change in a major way as a result of the civil rights movement and the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson is that de jure segregation was defeated and black citizens in the South won the right to vote, in reality and not just in theory. Even unrepentant segregationists recognized the need to frame their arguments differently. The last decade or so has convinced me that there were a lot more unrepentant segregationists than I had imagined or hoped. For a while, I used the term neosegregationist to talk about white racist political positions. But with vote suppression having become a major push of the Republican Party, the "neo" part no longer makes any sense, if it ever did. Voter suppression was the mainstay of "oldo" segregation.

Kilpatrick worked at the now-defunct Richmond News Leader, where neo-Confederate historian Douglas Southall Freeman was editor. Freeman is best known for his hagiography of Robert E. Lee, the Christ of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War. Kilpatrick became editor after Freeman's retirement in 1951 and remained editor until 1967. So his editorship coincided with the most intense period of the civil rights movement of that time.

Hustwit discusses Kilpatrick's segregationist views at length in the article. He tells the story of an article Kilpatrick composed for the Saturday Evening Post, whose homey Americanism also included a distinct political conservatism. In his article, that was solicited by the magazine for a Fall 1963 issue, said among other things:

[T]he Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race .... Within the frame of reference of a Negroid civilization, a mud hut may be a masterpiece; a tribal council may be a marvel of social organization; a carved image may have a primitive purity all its own. Well and good. But the mud hut ought not to be equated with Monticello, nor jungle rule with Periclean Athens, nor phallic dolls with Elgin marbles. When the Negro today proclaims or demands his "equality," he is talking of equality within the terms of Western civilization. And what, pray, has he contributed to it? Putting aside conjecture, wishful thinking and a puerile jazz worship, what has he in fact contributed to it? The blunt answer, may it please the court, is very damned little.
It didn't please Post editor Thomas Congdon Jr. very much. He rejected the article for publication, calling it, "Bad taste, in the extreme, and, in fact, inflammatory."

The times, they were a-changin', and blowhard honkie talk like that was becoming less and less acceptable nationally. Kilpatrick was already beginning to recognize this in 1961. Hustwit quotes from Kilpatrick's private correspondence that year:

For a long time, I followed a policy of not yielding anywhere at all on these questions of segregation, on the theory that if we gave an inch, they [blacks] would take a mile. That may still be the wiser course. I don't know. But the longer I have lived with this problem, and the more I have thought about it, the more persuaded I am that we have to get rid of a few of the old stereotypes we have lived by, and that we have to begin some gradual adaptation to a genuinely new order of things. Whether we like it or not is immaterial, but a new generation of Negroes is growing up that includes a great many decent, well education [sic], intelligent, and perfectly respectable men and women.
This wasn't a change of heart on Kilpatrick's part, though, as his unpublished Post article of two years later indicates dramatically. Kilpatrick quotes from his correspondence in 1960 to one of the most notorious white racist figures in the South:

Making a case for African American inequality, however, without the outright racist declarations that were no longer tolerated by a desegregating society challenged him. With Mississippi friend Robert Patterson of the White Citizens' Council, Kilpatrick planned a way to promote the segregationist South's position in a manner that stopped short of eugenics but demonstrated a gulf between the races. "I think your idea of emphasizing the 'difference' instead of the 'inferiority' of the Negro race is absolutely sound," he told Patterson. Sensing the danger of trumpeting blacks' anthropological or genetic inferiority, Kilpatrick experimented with a new rhetoric to present effective resistance. "Like yourself," he wrote his collaborator, "I believe the Negro race is inferior, and I don't see how any person who weighs the evidence objectively could come to any other conclusion. Be that as it may, the word 'inferior' is semantically bad. It goes with 'white supremacy,' which is another phrase difficult to manage in a public opinion struggle. By dwelling upon the 'difference' between the races, we can establish the case for inferiority without involving ourselves directly in a value judgment."
The evolution of Kilpatrick's rhetoric toward the Nixonian Southern Strategy perspective, was connected with the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, a landmark event in the long-term shift of Southern white conservatives to the Republican Party:

The opportunity to hamper civil rights through acceptable means came in 1964. Kilpatrick was susceptible to angry outbursts against desegregation, but as a professional journalist he normally had a reputation as a writer with a rational, unemotional approach to race problems. William F. Buckley asked him to outline for the National Review what position Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater should take on civil rights. Determined to bring Senator Goldwater's campaign and the white South's defense of its race relations under one umbrella, Kilpatrick geared his proposals toward the Right's common goals of freeing capital from regulation and defending private property, states' rights, and individual liberty. He framed his arguments in a way that placed his contempt for racial progress within a set of conservative values. Through emphasizing fiscal restraint and federalism, Goldwater could counteract reckless federal spending and the new civil rights legislation. Kilpatrick encouraged enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only with "moral suasion" and "State [rather than federal] regulation," but never through force and arbitration. "The right to own, and possess, and manage property is vital" to the freedom of Americans, wrote Kilpatrick. He advised Goldwater, instead of talking about race explicitly, to focus on proper respect for state sovereignty to limit socialistic welfare and civil rights programs. Federal intervention in social problems had deprived states of their power and reduced them to "merely eunuchs" pitifully orbiting "a federal sun."
That is the general approach of today's Republican Party. Even if some of them are becoming more prone to letting the pretense of "color-blind" respectability slip, like Rick Santorum with his campaign comments about "blah people" and referring to President Obama as a "government nig-" before catching himself.

Hustwit describes how the Republican/conservative version of "color-blindness" is really focused only on opposing measures to prevent racial discrimination. Simple-minded as it sounds (and is), the argument is that to prevent racial discrimination, the government would have to recognize that it is occurring. But government should be "color-blind", so it can't recognize any racial factors in discrimination. And therefore any legislative or executive action against racial discrimination is invalid. This is the viewpoint of "libertarians" like Ron (Papa Doc) and Rand (Baby Doc) Paul, and of billionaire reactionaries like the Koch Brothers.

In other words, Kilpatrick adapted his language to the changing partisan politics of racial discrimination and to decreasing public tolerance of overt white racism. As Hustwit put it, about his syndicated column that began in Newsday in 1964:

Newsday elevated Kilpatrick's career to a national level by giving him a mandate "to present to a national audience the reasoned and calm point of view of a conservative white Southerner." What that meant in practice was that Kilpatrick should talk about racial problems without anthropological arguments about black inferiority.
Cynical though it may have been for Kilpatrick, this kind of opportunism wasn't entirely a bad thing. The civil rights movement had produced and unprecedented level of resistance to the post-Reconstruction structure of white supremacy that had been in place since the mid-1870s. The blunt brutality and often crass stupidity of the Southern segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s went a long way toward discrediting them and their cause nationally. And with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations in Washington, there was a national government that was actually willing to enforce the law in the South when it came to racial matters. With changing national standards, people like Kilpatrick found themselves more limited in their advocacy for white racism, however little their personal perspectives may have changed.

Hustwit quotes from a 1966 litter to an new Saturday Evening Post editor who now wanted to publish his 1963 racist article quoted above. In that 1966 letter, Kilpatrick explained why he now declined to have the article published:

From my own professional point of view, the problem is quite simply that I do not want-and could not possibly afford-to be publicly associated with these views, phrased with such vigor. Since the piece was written, as you may know, I have launched into the writing of a nationally syndicated column. It is going tolerably well, with about 70 papers in the fold, but my whole pitch is a reasoned and good-humored conservatism, in which I shun these racial views almost completely. My syndicate tells me that the biggest single obstacle to further sale of the column is my reputation as a[n] old-fashioned Southern racist and segregationist. If the column is to make headway, and to provide me a platform for selling dozens of ideas more important to me than the anthropological differences, if any, of the Negro race, I must continue to treat the subject, if at all, with the greatest restraint, compassion, tact, and all that.
Blatant white racism didn't sell as well as it once did.

I'll close with a 1973 quote from Kilpatrick in which he applied his double-reverse pitch against "reverse racism" to accusing the advocates of affirmative action, which under the Nixon Administration became identified with the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, as being the real racism:

In these areas of race relations, I sometimes think I am getting to be like [the] Catholic convert who became more Catholic than the Pope. I spent years as a Southern editor, filled with old-fashioned Southern racial prejudices, fighting to preserve segregation in our schools. Then came the light. Today I am just as incensed as my Yankee critics were incensed 30 years ago at what seems to me the virulent evils of a pervasive racism throughout our society. That men and women must be hired, promoted, educated, transported, assigned or not assigned, solely because of the color of their skin strikes me as indefensible.
That cynical quote is a reminder that for white racists in America, it's always the fault of black people. Whether it's white racism or the mortgage bubble of the 2000s, they always find a way to blame it on African-Americans.

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