The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives
Those who are acquainted, if not altogether familiar with the work of Adolph L. Reed, Jr. will think of his newer book as nothing more than a confirmation of his by now long-held view of the role of race in our political and social life as essentially a class issue. And indeed, toward the very end of his memoirs-based reflections on segregation in the US titled The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives (note the plural), he writes that Jim Crow “was a class system rooted in employment and production relations that were imposed, stabilized, regulated, and naturalized through a regime of white supremacist law, practice, custom, rhetoric, and ideology.” This is how Reed, Jr. understands and analyses racial segregation, which he experienced directly first growing up in New Orleans, where his family settled after moving from New York City, where he was born, and Washington DC, then regularly visiting the Big Easy and working in other areas of the South. Reed, Jr., however, does not downplay the role of white supremacy, in the South and nationally alike. On the contrary, he makes it central to the development of our political and social relations ever since Reconstruction was allowed, if not forced to fail by the same forces that he indicts, when he writes that white supremacy “was the instrument of a specific order of political and economic power that was clearly racial but that most fundamentally stabilized and reinforced the dominance of powerful political and economic interests.” That explains why white supremacy was “a cover story” as much as a “concrete program,” a way of defining white supremacy that combines life as it happened and the narrative that envelops it, or the structure and the superstructure and what goes in between if you prefer.
His critics, which these days include the self-appointed guardians of racial politics and intersectional socialism (the new political flavor of the day in our United States), will insist that The South is the last chapter in Reed, Jr.’s race reductionism, likely before, if not without reading the book. Those on his side, instead, will praise his progressive politics, his dissection of our past and present and the role race played in them to align him with previous African American intellectuals as well as, of course, the perennially evoked radicalism, obviously without defining it. Among the book’s blurbs, for example, one can read Henry Louis Gates Jr. linking The South to Jean Toomer’s Cane or Cornel West calling the political scientist “the towering radical theorist of American democracy.” In her foreword, instead, Barbara J. Fields, doing her best imitation of Antonio Gramsci, writes that “among the lessons of The South is that tyrannical regimes can be at their most unpredictable and treacherous in the midst of dissolution.” What seems to me more interesting about this work, however, is its main theoretical presupposition and the two essential pillars upon which such theorization and Reed, Jr.’s understanding of Jim Crow and its political and social consequences rest.
The theoretical premise of The South is that Jim Crow and what followed its legal disappearance is an eminent modern experience. Because of this, it is also the central experience of twentieth-century America, although a better way to think about it would be to use the word Americanism in the sense Gramsci used it in his Prison Notebooks, an interconnected system of production and social relations that asserts its hegemony in all aspects of life. It is no coincidence that throughout the book Reed, Jr. interweaves the historical relationships between African Americans and late nineteenth and early twentieth-century immigrant groups in New Orleans, especially Italians and Jews, the backbone of the turn of the twentieth-century European and Mediterranean migration to the Americas. What this means, politically speaking first and foremost, is that the Penn emeritus professor poses Jim Crow as the primary factor “for contemporary life” in the US, starting with the very simple and yet incredibly overlooked and seldom remembered fact in the public discourse about race that “it was, after all, elimination of blacks from the electorate that made the Jim Crow regime possible in the first place.” Conceptually speaking, this elimination had very little to do with slavery and very much to do with the power and the money that in a capitalist society are needed to secure and exercise power. In other words, to secure and maintain property rights, which our Constitution elevates to a metaphysical level, the legislation that guarantees them, and the control of the labor force. Reed, Jr. does not marginalize slavery or argue that there is no continuity between slavery and Jim Crow, that there was a complete hiatus between the two experiences. He’s certainly not that naïve. Rather, he insists on the fact that the political and social conditions of life in America, and the South especially, had drastically changed after the experience of Reconstruction. To put it differently, Jim Crow has more to do with the development of modernity in America than slavery does. To miss this crucial point, he argues, is to miss the impact that Jim Crow had and, to an extent, still has in our life, something that perhaps is best exemplified by the continuous attempt by the party most closely aligned, if not entirely owned by big money interests and anti-labor forces, to suppress or limit voting rights and maintain an outdated electoral system and parliamentarian rules such as the filibuster in the Senate. It is not coincidence that such a party gets most of its votes in and controls a great deal of the southern states.
What this premise allows Reed, Jr. to do in the rest of the volume is to use the recollection of his personal experiences, the recollections, that is, of “a familiar outsider, an expatriate” (his profession brought him back to the Northeast for most of his adult life) to describe in concrete terms everyday life in the south under the segregationist regime. He writes from the point of view of someone who, “having lived through” life under Jim Crow, “can give a special sensitivity to its nuances and to the ways in which it was encoded in people’s everyday lives.” By doing so, he depicts and questions at once the very idea of freedom in the United States and its limitations as Black peopleand white people and certain ethnic groups experienced it and them. So much for reductionism! In prototypical Hegelian fashion, he shows freedom’s possibilities by way of negation, more Sterling Brown than Ralph Ellison, so to speak. No wonder that stylistically and methodologically the way the political scientist goes about his narrative reminded me of the best moments in the Federal Writers’ Project’ “American Guide Series,” that unique enterprise to which both Brown and Ellison participated as well as of Jerre Mangione’s Mount Allegro, the memoir of one of the architects of that same experience that helped redefine American literary culture and the nation’s identity right before WWII. When, in the opening pages of the book, echoing the tone of the best guides, he writes that words such as White Supremacy, racism, prejudice do not explain the realities of segregation, what and whom segregation served, what kept it together, what it was and how it operated, Reed, Jr. is asking the reader to consider instead how people’s lives were organized and how they lived in “a coherent social order, constructed and maintained by specific social interests through political and economic institutions that channeled the experience of everyone in the region.”
The second pillar of his discourse is the role of religion within the exclusionary system in place in the South. More specifically, and this is another extremely important and traditionally overlooked issue, the role of Catholicism in Louisiana’s political and social order. Reed, Jr. grew up Catholic. In DC, he attended and made his First Communion at a racially integrated church in the early 1950s. When the family moved to New Orleans, he lived “mainly within Catholic middle-class circles, as insulated as it was possible to be from arbitrary white racial power.” The Archdiocese embraced segregation and seating was separated. Confessional lines, however, were not, and Catholicism proved to be a “mild solvent in that very Catholic city, particularly at the level of the neighborhood parish.” This, to me, is hardly surprising. Despite its institutional limitations and issues, and the list is miles and miles long and filled with crimes and shame, at its core Catholicism, especially as it is often intended and practiced at the popular, non-institutional level, is a communitarian, perhaps we might say even inclusive kind of religion that does not mesh especially well with the fundamental tenets of capitalism and its inherent atomizing nature that infects social relationships and triggers repressive and violent forms of individualism. I would go even further and say that theoretically speaking Catholicism is incompatible with capitalism. After all, Catholicism is about salvation, capitalism about success. Additionally, at the popular level the Catholicism of New Orleans is to a large extent a fusion of Mediterranean and Caribbean Catholicism, which entails pre-Christian key notions such as “respect” for the other and the outsider as a recognition of life’s sacredness as well as a history of encounters between cultures and peoples. Even the Irish, whose Catholicism is also, and to no small degree, a form of anti-monarchical resistance against a Protestant foreign invader, in New Orleans played a significant factor in interracial working-class solidarity between the second half of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century that Reed, Jr. does not fail to remind his readers of.
The problem here for me is that Catholicism in the rest of the South did not have the same presence and importance that it had in Louisiana, and especially in New Orleans. That is why I am somehow skeptical about making New Orleans a paradigmatic synecdoche for the South under segregation. I am not sure how replicable the experience that Reed, Jr. describes in the book was in other parts of the South, at least in the same forms. Likewise, the multiethnic Catholicism and cosmopolitanism of New Orleans remains unique to that city in the entire Southern region. One must only think about the multiracial dimensions and history of New Orleans jazz versus the origins and nature of the Delta Blues, which, except for the indigenous presence especially audible in Charley Patton, is mostly a Black affair. Still, in New Orleans, Catholicism helped trigger what Reed, Jr. calls moments that “subverted racial distance and, to that extent also the Jim Crow regime, if only at the margins.” This is not to say that those neighborhoods were “idyllic settings of racial harmony.” But that, if I understand correctly what the book is trying to achieve, is exactly the point. The Catholic church endorsed segregation. Seating at mass was separated. Yet, confessional lines were not. Neighborhoods were segregated and not shared. Yet, people did coexist in them and “established moments of recognition of equivalent humanity, commonality, and connection as individuals.”
It makes sense, then, that Reed, Jr. on several occasions intertwines his personal stories and recollections with the history of Italian Americans in New Orleans, the prime example of a migrant people who paid the price of the ticket, which he uses to underscore those previously mentioned moments of subversion and recognition. One such example is the story Reed, Jr. recalls of the two family stores owned by the Gaglianos and the Oddos respectively, located in the mostly Black neighborhood of Hollygrove. The Oddos owner had a reputation as “‘mean’ if not ‘prejudiced’” because of their “business practices and mercenary demeanor,” which led some people to “insist that Oddo was Jewish,” although Reed, Jr. points out that the stereotyping was not a sign of antisemitism just like referencing the Gaglianos as “dagoes” was not an indication of anti-Italianism. The Gaglianos, instead, had a favorable reputation among Black patrons. Reed, Jr.’s parents referred to the store’s owner as Mr. Tony, and the Gaglianos referred to his grandparents as Mr. and Mrs. Mac (Macdonald), a mark of respect as well as mutual recognition, but also of familiarity and a sense of being a part of the same story. The Gaglianos, especially the wife, chatted amicably with Black patrons inquiring with the kids about school, their family, and the usual things that common folks talk about. Reed, Jr. recalls how their son named Tony Jr. (what else, The Sopranos anybody?) several years older and a “model plane buff” showed up at the future Ivy League professor’s home and spent an entire day helping him with his first remote-controlled model airplane. “It was an entirely unstrained interaction. He was empathetic and reassuring and encouraging in a manner that I expect a supportive black teenager would have been.” And why not, given that, Reed, Jr. continues, in spite of their classification as white, Black New Orleanians characterized Jews and Italians “as at the same time lying somewhere between Black and white.” Unsurprisingly, “Italians were viewed more broadly as not exactly white,” partly because of their history in the city, especially the 1891 lynching of eleven Italians accused of murdering the local police chief (a corrupted to the bones and politically ambitious figure) as well as because of “the dark-complexioned Sicilians [that] shaded phenotypically into indistinguishability from the Black Creole population,” which triggered the “uptown, white upper-class prejudice against Italians” well into the 1970s (here a slice of post-WWII assimilation for you paesans).
Another episode that questions the established order is when Reed, Jr. recalls his encounter, later in his life, with a South Carolina state trooper who stopped him and asked him to explain the meaning of the bumper sticker “Boycott” with the Gulf Oil logo, a symbol of the Pan-African Liberation Committee and other organizations siding with anti-colonial rebellions in Portuguese Africa. “So in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere on a South Carolina roadside, while staring into the barrel of a shotgun,” Reed, Jr. recalls, “I had to give an impromptu account of persistence of Portuguese colonialism in Africa and Gulf’s complicity in sustaining it.” Clearly, Reed, Jr. is one hell of a teacher, as the officer “made an intended gesture of empathy” in reference to the OPEC embargo of the time and asked Reed, Jr. if he was “exercised by Gulf and the Portuguese because ‘they’re doing this to your race of people.’”
This anecdote-driven narrative, which occupies the first half of the book especially, has a twofold purpose. To begin with, it questions the mythic depiction of Black communities as segregated and self-isolated in the ways Toni Morrison built them and represented them in her fiction. Reed, Jr. demonstrates how that was never the case, while recognizing that white power never disappeared from life in those communities. If anything, the urban racial parataxis exemplified by the previously mentioned Oddo’s and Gagliano’s stores, or, in the fictional realm of popular culture, by Sal’s pizzeria in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, speak volumes about Reed, Jr.’s point and not solely about Black communities, but about ethnic communities as well. Likewise, such narrative elegantly but unequivocally dismantles the myth of black support for “collective autonomy or independence,” with the “partial exception of Garveyism,” the proverbial exception that confirms the rules.
There were two main reasons for this lack of support. The first was that the exclusion African Americans experienced was political and civic, never economic. Black Americans were segregated politically. Their economic position was one of subordination, the cheap and exploited labor that the system needed (and needs) to stay in place. “The point was not to remove them from the mainstream economy but to enforce their subordinate position within it” Reed, Jr. insists. The second, more basic reason is that most Black Americans wanted (and want) “equal opportunity and justice in the here-and-now.” That does not mean that they do not “respond favorably to appeals to racial pride and solidarity” or that they do not support Black-owned businesses. But they did and do so for the same exact reason as to why they did not seek a mythic independence: because the United States of America is their home. They belong here just as everybody else who lives in this country does. Even more so because, after all, they built the country from the ground up, literally.
At the same time, the narrative insists on the role of institutions in enforcing Jim Crow, its legal structure (interestingly, Reed, Jr. notices what he calls “the democratizing realities of mafia-led wide openness” in New Orleans, albeit without elaborating on it.) What this means is that the regime of segregation was not imposed on Black people solely. It was imposed on whites too, especially the poor whites who had been disenfranchised, this time after the defeat of the Populist insurgencies of the 1890s, perhaps not coincidentally the first organized anti-capitalist forms of rebellion in our country. Consequently, white elites controlled the extent of interracial relationships. Possibly even more important, the disenfranchisement of Black people deprived the white working class of an ally in opposing and even challenging “ruling-class prerogatives.” The result of these various processes is also the result of a great deal of the development of modernity and the concomitant racial question. Those migrants who arrived on the American shores at the end of the nineteenth century who were “previously alien to American racial ideology” were pushed to distance themselves “from legal, or customary, classification as Black.” In this respect, the story of New Orleans that Reed, Jr. tells is the story of twentieth century and perhaps twenty-first-century America, as more recent immigrant groups, not much darker than those Southern Italians and equally Catholic, seem to be going in the same exact direction. Reed, Jr. notes how only the Chinese merchants “came to occupy a classic ethnic middleman merchant’s niche and to assert claims to a social and legal position outside the Black/white binary,” an example of how that binary reified the status quo then as it does now. Reed, Jr. reminds his reader how immigration policy required whiteness for the acquisition of citizenship, a strategy that pushed immigrants to make the pragmatic choice to pursue whiteness, “People from elsewhere did not come here steeped in that binary, least of all as the foundation of a social order.” It was a forced choice in more than one way, as nobody of sane mind who has left everything for the unknown would volunteer to have it worse than ever before, which happened as long as those groups did not distance themselves from Blackness and accepted or even embraced their status as non-white people. What marginal immigrant groups rejected was “being marked as belonging to a population on the bottom of the social order with severely constrained rights and opportunities and social pariah status.” What this means is that class and race overlapped. They were one and the same, in the sense that such overlapping resulted in attaching “sharply different meanings and consequences to being ‘black’ in ways that wouldn’t have been possible within the Jim Crow order grounded on the generic Black/white binary.”
It is not a coincidence, I think, that the last section of The South is dedicated to the question of passing and the more recent removal of monuments of complicated historical figures, which Reed, Jr. uses to sustain his argument that segregation was enforced on white and Black people alike. This, once again, does mean to assert that it happened in the same way, let alone to the same degree. According to Reed, Jr. passant blanc, as New Orleanians refer to in French, passing was for the most part “a pragmatic phenomenon, unburdened by the stuff of the overwrought morality play rehearsed in films, literature, and the ruminations of race-conscious commentators of all sorts.” He recalls how Earl K. Long, Huey P.’s brother, channeling his inner Mark Twain, remarked during his gubernatorial campaign of 1960 that “it was possible to feed all the truly white people in South Louisiana off one plate of red beans and rice,” a statement that goes a long way in telling you how massive the distance between the reality of everyday life and institutional racial politics had been. Black people would even joke about passant blanc. Moreover, at the beginning of the 1960s the Catholic Church desegregated its parochial schools. The Catholic Archbishop even “excommunicated three notorious white supremacists.” Reed, Jr. enjoys recalling how his own grandmother would easily pass to get the much longed (by the whole family) fresh beignets (can you blame her?). What made this type of crossover possible was also New Orleans’ seemingly congenital and “relative laxity in enforcement of racial regulation,” to the point that already in 1902 both Black and white people protested the institutionally mandated racial segregation in municipal transit on the basis that it was an “unnecessary inconvenience.” Although Reed, Jr. does not suggest this, I wonder how Catholicism played a part in such “relative laxity.” Of course, the cosmopolitan demography of New Orleans must have played a role in it as well. Reed, Jr., in fact, recalls how, on a trip back to New Orleans in the 1990s to attend a conference, he ended up at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival where he realized that among “the potpourri of more or less swarthy attendees it was no longer possible for me even to speculate on who was considered to be what racially. People who may have identified as Cubans and Hondurans, South Asians, Italian (largely Sicilian) Americans, Isleños from the Canary Islands, and other nominal whites formed a physically and behaviorally indistinguishable blur with whoever may have been (Black) Creoles,” more proof of the artificiality of segregation, which the culinary word choice to describe racial hybridity in this passage further highlights (after all, who’s writing is at heart a New Orleanian).
Still and all, especially considering our most recent public debate about White Supremacy, segregation, and race, the most interesting part of the concluding section is the book’s last chapter dedicated to the issue of the removal of confederate monuments, programmatically titled “Echoes, Scar Tissue, and Historicity.” Reed, Jr. introduces it by way of recollecting various car trips he took in the region that bring back moments from his youth mixed with reflections on racial relations and White Supremacy. The back and forth between personal memories and criticism shows the reader how Black people always challenged the boundaries of Jim Crow as well as how the latter lasted a relatively short period of time, as it began to unravel right after WWII. Reed, Jr. argues that already when it was at its peak, the regime was under significant strain and needed to adjust to macro events such as the Great Migration of Black people to the north, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and the rise of industrial unions and the war itself. I would add to this list the return home of Black soldiers from the European front, where they had observed and experienced a whole different type of freedom amid total destruction. The myth of the solidity of the regime was the work of the ruling classes, which needed to project such an image both for external and internal reasons. This is neither new nor surprising. Anybody who has read one of Faulkner’s great novels or Leslie Fiedler’s writings on Gone With The Wind knows exactly what Reed, Jr. is talking about. That image persisted (it still does to an extent), at the expense of “the picture of what the Jim Crow South was.” Nonetheless, Reed, Jr. points out, occasionally something happens that forces one to ponder critically about history, society, and politics.
One such moment occurred in 2017, when Reed, Jr. found himself in New Orleans at the time of the controversy over the removal of the statues of the Liberty Monument erected in 1891 to commemorate the white supremacist Crescent City White League’s uprising against the Reconstruction era state government in the name of a “hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization” (truly you can’t make this stuff up), re-affirmed in 1932 with inscriptions that praised the insurrection that installed a government “‘by the white people’ and praised the 1876 election that ‘recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state,’” along with the statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, the latter another confederate general. Of course, the removal triggered the protest of the usual suspects. Firstly, Reed, Jr. chronicles a little their pitiful racist acts of protest, including a poster reading “First Davis, then Jesus” (finally someone dethroned the Palestinian born olive-skinned Jew from the top of the rightwing iconography chart) as well as an equally depressing (and racist) neighborhood group chat discussion. Then, he launches into a historical overview and critical analysis of the insurrection and its context, including Alexander Stephens’s 1861 “Cornerstone Speech,” the 1860 state of South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” and the historical and legal roots of Lincoln and other Republicans’ antislavery constitutionalism, all with the support of scholarly works. Finally, he dismantles the false argument that those statues celebrate those figures for other reasons than their support of white supremacy. All of which he does to demonstrate how the statues were tools to create the ideology and the mythology of the Lost Cause “across the region in concert with the program of restoration of unmitigated upper-class dominance in the South after the defeat of Reconstruction and the Populist movement,” a public visual narrative, one could call it, for a movement that began with the political act of mass disfranchisement of nearly all Black people (104,000 Black people voted in 1896, less than 1,000 eight years later) as well as poor whites. This ideology popular culture reified twice over with unheard of success. Once in 1915 with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. A second time twenty-four years later, at the onset of WWII, nominally a battle between freedom and a racial dictatorship, with what Reed, Jr. nicely terms Birth of a Nation’s “talkie update, Gone with the Wind.”
And yet, while racist views and positions are well and alive among segments of the population, in the south and elsewhere, the fact of the matter is that the meaning of those statues does not explain the inequalities of our time “not even those that may seem most conspicuously racial.” As vexed as the debate around those and other statues around the country was, their removal was supported by the powers that be, including the big corporations and universities that fight tooth and nails, with the help of handsomely paid law firms, the unionization of workers and non-tenured faculty, who often are a non-white majority, as well as those who run for political office constantly telling us that a college degree is the way to economic advancement and social stability while they continue to vote to cut fundings to public universities. Among them are both Black and white Americans, as nowadays “Blacks occupy positions in the socioeconomic order previously available only to whites, and whites occupy those previously identified with Blacks,” whereas the “dynamics of superordination and subordination, patterns of appropriation and distribution, and dominant understanding of which material interest should drive policy,” did not change. Ultimately the paradox, and paradoxes take us to the core of the matter as Hannah Arendt liked to say, is that the defeat of white supremacy, of which those previously mentioned statues are the markers, did not change the hegemony that kept the “class system untouched” and reified it. “A simple racism/anti-racism framework,” Reed, Jr. concludes, “isn’t adequate for making sense of the segregation era, and it certainly isn’t up to the task of interpreting what has succeeded it or challenging the forms of inequality and injustice that persist.”
This discourse amounts to a systemic analysis, both from within and from outside, of Jim Crow and its afterlives to use the book’s subtitle. More important for us today, I think, it includes a rigorous critique of freedom in connection to the social and political organization of our life. One that is predicated upon a theoretically and historically based comprehensive way to understand the experience of segregation. A critique that does away with the Black/white binary that, regardless of how one flips the racial coin, ends up reifying the fable of American exceptionalism through the rhetoric of freedom as a uniquely American value and experience. For this only, if I could, I would build Reed, Jr. a statue myself. But inadvertent reviewer that I am, as I type these words, I realize that this is precisely what Reed, Jr. himself did with this extraordinary little book. He built himself a statue, one for everybody to understand our past a little better, and, possibly, act now to build our future accordingly.