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The White Man's Bargain

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A strange idea has been running through some of the commentary about Baltimore: wasn’t electing Barack Obama supposed to fix this? Why are black people still so mad all the time when we elected a black president? This idea is not new, nor is it terribly hard to find. On Thursday, it popped up in a New York Times report on Hillary Clinton’s speech calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system following the death of Freddie Gray. Political journalists Amy Chozick and Michael Barbaro included this analysis of how the events in Baltimore might alter Obama's presidential legacy:

For those seeking the White House, the conflagration in Baltimore exposed a complicated truth: The racial comity that the election of Barack Obama seemed to promise has not materialized, forcing them to grapple with a red-hot, deeply unresolved dynamic that strays far from their carefully crafted messages and favored themes.

“I don’t think any of the candidates want or expect the summer of 2015 to be like the summer of 1968,” when race riots hit major American cities, said Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican political strategist who is not aligned with any campaign.

A number of people “crafted this tacit bargain in their heads,” he said, speaking of Mr. Obama’s election. “This is going to be the end of the ugly parts of racial division in American.”

What exactly do these Times reporters and Wilson (incidentally, one of the hack strategists identified by The Washington Post’s Ben Terris as always good for a quote but not much insight) mean when they say there has been some "tacit bargain" for "racial comity" in voting for Obama? What is being exchanged? Wilson is probably not saying people thought police would stop killing unarmed black kids because Obama was elected. Perhaps instead he is saying people thought black people would stop getting so mad when it happened. What he means is that people (and, let's say this right here: white people) are eager to pay off the whole legacy-of-slavery-and-systemic-racism tab, to finally settle up and not have to think about social justice anymore. Wasn't making a black guy president enough?

There can only be a tacit bargain if you imagine white people and black people as two separate nations negotiating a zero-sum deal. Of course this is ridiculous: Justice is not zero sum. But lamentations like the Times' not only buy into this imaginary treaty, but also suggest black people aren't holding up their side of the agreement: "The racial comity that the election of Barack Obama seemed to promise has not materialized." "Comity" is a term for legal reciprocity—when two separate legal entities agree to enforce each other's laws. A quirk of this great racial truce: only black people can violate it.

This wasn't the first time this notion of whether a grand bargain had been violated was raised. Earlier this week, Rush Limbaugh made the same case to his listeners:

I mean, how many of you in this audience went to vote in 2008, and for only one reason voted for Barack Obama: You thought doing so would finally bring an end to all of this racial strife, because you, as a white person, presuming, voting for a black man would demonstrate to every African-American for once and for all you're not a racist, that we aren't racists, that we can elect a black president.

That's after we have made a black overweight woman the richest TV entertainer in the country: Oprah. And how'd that work out for you? We have the first African-American president, and they, the African-Americans, are as unhappy, ticked off, and angry as ever.

Limbaugh is one of the greatest promoters of the idea of the tacit bargain—"Millions of Americans voted for Obama because they hoped it meant the end of racism, that if enough people voted for Obama the conclusion would be there are no racists in America anymore"—but he didn't invent it. The concept of the tacit bargain is embraced by many public figures, both our wise leaders and our beloved clowns. Donald Trump tweeted this week, "Our great African American President hasn't exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!" Senator Ted Cruz said this week, "President Obama, when he was elected, he could have been a unifying figure... He could have chosen to be a leader on race relations and bring us together. And he hasn’t done that." 

Judging Obama on what he has and hasn't done to heal racial divisions is a direct outgrowth from a certain assertion about how he became a popular presidential candidate in the first place: he struck a deal with liberals to assuage them of their white guilt. This argument was so ubiquitous in 2008 that Obama himself repudiated it in his major speech on race: "On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap." Even so, the idea remained popular on all sides of the political debate.

In March 2008, after Geraldine Ferraro claimed Obama was a presidential contender because of his race, black conservative Shelby Steele explained the bargain fairly explicitly in The Wall Street Journal

How to turn one's blackness to advantage?

The answer is that one "bargains." Bargaining is a mask that blacks can wear in the American mainstream, one that enables them to put whites at their ease. This mask diffuses the anxiety that goes along with being white in a multiracial society. Bargainers make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him. And whites love this bargain—and feel affection for the bargainer—because it gives them racial innocence in a society where whites live under constant threat of being stigmatized as racist. So the bargainer presents himself as an opportunity for whites to experience racial innocence.

Canadian newspaper publisher and convicted felon Conrad Black subscribes to the tacit bargain theory in his 2013 book, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership:

Obama seduced his party and then the nation with a subtle formula that was never explicit, but was clear to the electorate: The great, white, decent, centrist majority of America, conscientiously guilty over the treatment of the African Americans... could be rid of its guilt and, as a bonus, never have to listen to the charlatan leaders of the African American political community who had unworthily succeeded Martin Luther King, if it only elevated Barack Obama to the headship of the nation.

In 2012, the Huffington Post's Peter S. Goodman bought into the "tacit bargain" too. At least, that other progressive people made the deal: "Here was Obama, enabling progressive white people to revel in a landmark in racial enlightenment, one in which the achieving was being done by white Americans as much as black Americans. We white people could feel a little less lousy about our role in both history and present." (Given the Times's Rick Wilson quote, it's notable Goodman said in 2010 he left the Times  because he was tired of "almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.") 

The most comical version is a song by liberal country music star Brad Paisley. In “Accidental Racist,” Paisley sings, "Our generation didn't start this nation/ And we're still paying for the mistakes/ That a bunch of folks made long before we came." In the song, LL Cool J proposes a pretty sweet bargain for white people, "If you don't judge my gold chains / I'll forget the iron chains." 

This notion of whites striking a bargain with black people to settle past wrongs (and black people subsequently going back on that deal) has been said in largely the same terms for more than a century, stretching back before the Civil War and the end of slavery. As the country has slowly inched toward a more equal society, at every step, certain white people have protested that this is enough, that black people ought to be satisfied by now. Once slavery ended, white anger turned to the idea of black enfranchisement. Once voting rights were assured, white anger turned to the idea of forced integration in private businesses. Once civil rights were assured, white anger turned to welfare.

In the wake of the civil rights movement and a summer of riots (which Time's cover alluded to this week), a headline in the September 19, 1968, Deseret News reads, “Negro Violence Stirs Negative Reactions.” White voters were growing upset with welfare “handouts,” according to the article, by pollster Samuel Lubell. "[M]ost white people have always been ready to pay some economic price for racial peace. Today one senses a spreading concern that racial quiet can no longer be bought through welfare grants. In city after city the same uneasy gripe is heard—'No matter what you do they ask for more' or, 'You just can't satisfy them.'"

The same sentiment was documented in the book After the Dream: Black and White Southerners Since 1965 by Timothy J. Minchin and John A. Salmond:

The Texan Jess F. Heard was also angry. 'God Almighty! he exclaimed in May 1968. 'Is there no end to the demands the Negroes will force our nation to meet? Will members of Congress continue to give these Socialists and Communists everything they ask for? Will memories of Martin Luther King dictate the future policy of our Congress?'

Look, we ended Jim Crow—even offered some economic redistribution. Do you want your elected representatives to actually represent you, too? In this view, the bargain is a reason not to give into demands: Black people are bad faith negotiators. Once they get one right, they want another.

Go back a few years earlier, to when the Civil Rights Act was still up for debate. In Life magazine’s June 19, 1964, edition, Arkansas Senator John McClellan explained his opposition to the legislation:

"Integration carried to its fullest means miscegenation. You can't satisfy them. There is no end to their demands. I have no objection to Negroes voting. But I think they ought to measure up to certain standards."

(The Life article is worth a read. Many senators, including many who history now views as great men of consequence, do not look good in this article.)

Take it back a few decades, to before the Great Migration, before the end of Jim Crow. A 1903 Washington Post editorial titled “Why Don’t the Negroes Stop It?” urges black people to "'stop their speech-making and tiresome demands for recognition' as a class," as the book Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America explains. The "inevitable harangue and protestations" were so annoying! The Post author writes, "Negroes, Negroes, this and that—there is no end to their complaints."

But wait! We can take this back even further. There's this editorial in the New York Herald from August 7, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, which forbade slavery, had not yet been ratified. The Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," would not be ratified for nearly 15 more years. 

Well may every lover of his country exclaim, what next? Is there no limit to their revolutionary demands? No end to their agitation and disturbance of the peace and prosperity of the country, or are the Abolitionists determined to continue their crusade until the people are forced to either adopt the social and connubial equality, free and universal amalgamation of races and sexes of the Fourierite phalanx order, or to resort to the alternative of a war of races, and the extinction of the blacks on this continent? ...

Unable to obtain full political control of the nation through the abolition of slavery and freedom of the blacks, they are renewing their efforts to accomplish that end in some other way. They now demand that the right of voting shall be universally conferred upon the blacks.

We ended slavery! Isn't that enough? Are you going to ask for voting, too?

The book Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War shows that this white frustration goes back even before the end of slavery. During the Civil War, southern states considered enlisting slaves in the Confederate army in exchange for freedom. The book details how the debate raged in southern newspapers, and quotes Charles C. Langdon, who edited a newspaper in Mobile, Alabama:

"'Just give this large body of free negroes to understand that they are freemen,' Mobile's Charles C. Langdon agrees, '…and there will be no end to their demands, until they are placed on a perfect equality with the white man, socially and politically.' They will then demand 'the right to sit at the same table, to attend our social parties, to marry our daughters.'"

Enlist them into the army? Next thing they'll be asking us for citizenship!

There you have it: You can draw a straight line from supporters of the Confederacy all the way to page A20 of the April 30, 2015, edition of The New York Times

The Confederates were barbarians, but they weren't stupid. When they feared that freeing blacks so they could fight in the Civil War would lead to demands for equality, they were right. Confederate Emancipation quotes Florida politician David Yulee warning, "To associate the colors in the [army] camp is to unsettle castes; and when thereby the distinction of color and caste is so far obliterated that the relation of fellow soldiers is accepted, the mixture of races and toleration of equality is commenced." The New York Herald was right too: The abolitionists would not stop their crusade until the country was forced to "adopt the social and connubial equality."

What tacit bargainers have always been asking is: Isn't there something else we can substitute for true equality? The answer is no. In the end, there can be no compromise. Making Oprah rich is not enough.