Teaching (amid a) White Backlash

It became clear to many of us that we were in the midst of a white backlash movement in the summer of 2021, when Republicans began passing voting restrictions, expanding police and vigilante power over protestors, and waging a bizarre anti-“CRT” campaign reminiscent of the segregationist protests of the 1950s and 1960s. The antidemocratic laws that white conservatives passed are now poised to usher in an apartheid state, a new Jim Crow built upon antidemocratic sabotage and violence. While I could hardly fathom the exact contours of this backlash movement when I first proposed to teach my “White Backlash and the American State” graduate seminar, I anticipated that a course of that nature would be topical in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, Donald Trump’s defeat, and the failed January 6th Insurrection he fomented to overturn the results of the 2020 election. 

The course is designed to help students understand 1) the contours of white backlashes, 2) their historical impact, and 3) the ways they shape the world we inherit. Below I discuss a few major takeaways from the course and what they reveal about our current moment of backlash. Learning this history not only helps us better understand our world as it actually exists, but provides an opportunity to reject the racist politics of backlash and, together, to demand a just, equitable, and livable future.

Why(te) Backlashes?

White backlash movements generally erupt when white conservatives imagine a threat to the racial hierarchies that they use to extract wealth and power from those around them. According to the backlashers themselves, race isn’t about “hate in your heart” or that mythical “racist bone,” but about access to schools, housing, jobs, and voting rights. The protests and racist violence of white backlashers demand a world where these resources are withheld from racialized communities–especially Black Americans – and distributed to groups of white Americans deemed more deserving. The demands of today’s backlashers fit the historical pattern identified clearly by Carol Anderson in White Rage: The unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide (2016). Anderson shows that historical white backlashers organized around a perceived loss of resources – segregated neighborhoods or schools, for example – and deployed vigilante violence alongside policymaking to create a more restrictive state. While famed segregationist George Wallace famously pronounced in his 1963 inaugural address that segregation itself was a moral imperative, for instance, he made damn sure to position himself literally in the doorway of white schools, protecting those white resources from other Americans. 

George Wallace literally blocking two Black students, Vivian Malone and James Hood, from desegregating the University of Alabama. Photo via Wikimedia.

One thing the literature around white backlashes makes clear – and I’m afraid this is rather daunting – is that the most violent backlashes occur in response to interracial organizing. That was true during the Reconstruction era, when white conservatives engaged in genocidal violence against Black Americans and white leftists who had organized around expanded ideas of citizenship and democracy that culminated in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Reactionaries waged a similar suppressionist campaign to destroy the interracial organizing of the Populists, who won the state legislature and governor’s mansion in North Carolina in 1896 by uniting working-class Black and white voters against the moneyed interests. White conservatives in North Carolina launched what they termed a “White Supremacy Campaign,” a media blitz that fabricated rape charges against Black men on the theory that holding political power (as a race) gave them an unquenchable desire to rape white women. (Zucchino, 114-122) It was, of course, a lie. In his memoir Editor in Politics, campaign architect and newspaper editor Josephus Daniels even admitted that the accounts were fabrications designed to incite white supremacist violence. The race-baiting led them to victory in 1898, but even this wasn’t enough for white conservatives who attempted an election-day lynching of the governor and orchestrated a coup in Wilmington, massacring an untold number of Black residents.

The Wilmington Coup and subsequent massacre shows another common element of backlash movements – a coordination of white vigilante and state violence. In Wilmington, as David Zucchino explains in Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (2020), white vigilantes and Democratic politicians not only incited mob violence but enlisted the help of the Wilmington Light Infantry – what today we call the National Guard – with machine guns to murder Black Wilmingtonians. The massacre in Wilmington – and related attacks on Black Veterans of the “Spanish-American” War of 1898 across the country – positioned white vigilantes as agents of state violence alongside the police and military, with whom they worked hand-in-hand. 

Headline in the New York Herald celebrating the white supremacist Wilmington Coup. Image via Wilmington Race Riot: From Massacre to Commemoration.

White Americans engaged in this revanchist pattern of violence, as Greg Grandin demonstrates in The End of the Myth (2019), from the Civil War to Vietnam and arguably through the present. These white backlashes during or immediately following Black wartime mobilizations targeted Black veterans to articulate a racially exclusive imperial state. For example, following the urban rebellions of 1968 in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon   supercharged his appeals to the racist nationalism of a “silent majority,” remaking American politics in the vision of his “Southern Strategy.” Under the strategy, Nixon used “law and order” rhetoric and racist euphemisms to depict Black Americans as an enemy within – a threat to white American power alongside the specter of communism in Vietnam. Indeed, as Grandin argues, as in 1898, the invocation of a “silent majority” amid a white supremacist crackdown in the wake of King’s assassination is impossible to disentangle from America’s imperialist proxy wars abroad (see esp. 207-213).

Content warning: this video contains a racial slur.

Republican strategist Lee Atwater explains the dog-whistle tactics of the Southern Strategy. Under the strategy, Atwater explains, Republican politicians replace racial slurs with abstract stereotypes and “the byproduct of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

While we often talk about white supremacy as being a regional “southern” problem – an issue of a backwards white minority living in an “unconstitutional” and otherwise bygone era – this view hides the ways that white backlashes have structured our laws and institutions. In the months before the Wilmington Coup, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. Mississippi (1898) that laws designed to prevent Black Americans from voting did not violate the Fifteenth Amendment. This ruling solidified the second-class status the Court had articulated for Black Americans in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment meant neither “equal” nor “protection” for Black Americans. The result was not simply a state in the wake of Wilmington that embraced and even participated in massacres of Black Americans, but one that explicitly refused to defend their rights.

The works in my syllabus “White Backlash and the American State” and those included in the Further Reading list below illustrate this dynamic and show that these white backlash movements were not limited to the American South. The white supremacist violence of Red Summer, as Barbara Foley’s Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro demonstrates, grew from white conservatives’ fear of a multiracial egalitarian movement. As has so often been the case, the white backlashers of Red Summer paired race-baiting and Red-baiting, justifying their mass violence with ghost stories about a dangerous Black and Red alliance. Students of abolitionism and the Civil War Era will recognize here white conservative fear-mongering  about “Black Republicans” and “Black Radicals,” meant to highlight how white leftists worked alongside Black Americans to undermine white power. In their racist imaginary, white interlopers introduced these ideas to otherwise happy and “un-thinking” Black workers. Never mind that Black intellectuals were at the forefront of these movements for equality, a point Foley illustrates well. In 1919, as in 1876, white backlashers used this double-tactic of race- and Red-baiting to justify the murder of their rivals and to pass laws meant to solidify the racial hierarchy. 

We see similar framing in today’s anti-“CRT” campaigns designed to narrowly define American-ness as white and conservative. In a movement reminiscent of the Red-and-Black scares of backlashes past, today’s white conservative reactionaries depict teachers and scholars as an enemy within, introducing (white) students in segregated schools to un-American Black American ideas and history. Anti-“CRT” crusaders hope to prevent students (and library patrons) from learning about America’s racist history and the ways white supremacy shaped our institutions through slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, Black disenfranchisement, redlining, segregation, massive resistance, white flight, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. Republicans have introduced thirty-two bills in state legislatures that ban teaching “CRT” – a term white conservatives apply to anything critical of white supremacy – and have already imposed bans in thirteen states. Historian Timothy Snyder identifies these bills as memory laws that “asser[t] a mandatory view of historical events, by forbidding the discussion of historical facts or interpretations.” Because white supremacy has structured state institutions since the founding of the U.S., learning about racism means understanding the ways that the state has historically advantaged white and especially wealthy Americans at the expense of everyone else. Understanding the U.S. as it exists carries significant implications and challenges the legitimacy of state structures and racial inequality that white conservatives have fought for generations to cement.

Protestors at the Pennsylvania state Capitol equate “CRT” – a term white conservatives apply to anything critical of white supremacy – to Marxism, socialism, racism, and a rejection of God. Photo by Dan Gleiter via Penn Live.

For those looking to learn more about white backlashes, I would recommend starting with Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which gives an overview of backlash movements after Reconstruction. As the title suggests, Anderson identifies “white rage” as the defining feature of the American state, establishing a baseline of violence through which Black Americans must navigate. Thus, while white elites depict Black organizers and intellectuals as “violent” or “angry” because they critique the racist state and demand equality, Anderson explains that the demands of Black thinkers and activists are merely responses to white Americans’ commitment to racial hierarchy.

Teaching, Learning, and Taking Action

My course takes an interdisciplinary approach to white backlashes, using the work of scholars from economics, sociology, political science and history to assess the causes and consequences of backlash movements. For example, I assigned the two articles analyzing lynching in week four of my syllabus to illustrate contrasting approaches to racial violence taken by economists, but also to compare with the cultural history offered by Amy Louise Wood the same week. While this approach has its drawbacks, I found our discussions gauging the strengths and weaknesses of these methodologies impressive and will likely use a similar format for future graduate courses.

Several of the texts are meant to show the tension between liberation movements (especially Black organizing) and the backlashes orchestrated by white elites to undermine movements for equality and eliminate future organizing. W. E. B. Du Bois illustrated this relationship masterfully in Black Reconstruction in America (1935); his “Propaganda of History” chapter should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to make sense of the goals of today’s racist anti-“CRT” agitators. He charged that white conservatives lied to generations of students about Black politics and organizing because they “regarded it as loyalty to blood, patriotism to country, and filial tribute to the fathers to lie, steal or kill in order to discredit these black folk” (725), which describes almost to the letter the demands of today’s anti-“CRT” crusaders. Then, as now, white backlashers respond to information about and demands for equality as a fundamental threat to white power. 

The actions of backlashers in response to egalitarian organizing reveal that a more just world is possible, one they will stop at nothing to prevent. I included Barbara Foley’s Spectres of 1919, Caroline Grego’s “Black Autonomy, Red Cross Recovery, and White Backlash after the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893” (2019), and  Taulby H. Edmondson’s “Protesting ‘a Bigger and Better Birth of a Nation’” (2020) in my syllabus because these works remind us that white backlashes are not inevitable and that another world was not only possible but even imminent. White backlashers use violence to prevent demands for equality from coming to fruition. Those more equal and just futures are indeed possible, however, if we have the courage to stand together and demand them.

As we navigate the current backlash – a response to the interracial organizing of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 – the works below serve both to explain the forces we encounter and to call us to action. Today’s Republican Party makes no pretense of a commitment to democracy or equality. Indeed, its legislative agenda and valorization of white vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse and Ashli Babbitt illustrate a dangerous commitment to white power and replicate many of the tactics that cemented the apartheid state of Jim Crow, which was only dislodged after much suffering, struggle, and sacrifice during the civil rights movement. We cannot allow the current white backlash movement to come to fruition – instead we must study and defeat it at all costs. 


Further Reading

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Paperback, 2010.

Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, 2016.

Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power, 2019.

Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, 2018.

Katheleen Belew and Ramon A. Gutierrez, A Field Guide to White Supremacy, 2021.

Adam Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory, 2020.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, 2007.

Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, 2019.

Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, 2019.

Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, 2005.

Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, 2010.

Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, 2017.

Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, 2015. 

Stuart Schrader, Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, 2019.

Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, 1996.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, 2016.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, 2019.

For additional readings, see Dr. Horne’s “White Backlash and the American State” syllabus.


Featured image: Spider Martin, “Two Minute Warning,” March 7, 1965, via CBS News.

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