I am fascinated, and alarmed, by the swiftness with which periods of backlash take shape after surges of Black progress, and I believe that we have entered another such period.
Much of my inquiry on the matter has focused on the period after Reconstruction was allowed to fail and that saw Jim Crow begin to rise. Much of this was embodied by the state of Mississippi, which in 1870 was majority Black. White supremacists in the state developed the “Mississippi Plan” in advance of the state’s 1875 elections to use fraud and the intimidation of Black voters, including through violence, to retake state power from progressives.
The plan worked. As historian Jason Phillips wrote for the Mississippi Historical Society and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, “Democratic candidates committed to White supremacy replaced every Republican incumbent in the 1875 elections.”
The racists took control of the state’s legislature and judiciary, impeached the Republican governor and installed a replacement of their liking.
Reconstruction ended when, with the Compromise of 1877 to end a contested presidential election, Democrats in Congress, mostly from the South, allowed Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to claim the presidency in exchange for the withdrawal of all federal troops. They had been enforcing the Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments and were providing a measure of protection for Black citizens in the South.
The next step was the calling of the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1890, which had the express purpose of encoding white supremacy into the state’s DNA. Other Southern states followed suit as the Jim Crow era took shape.
This was the start of a pattern that seems to repeat itself every few decades. In the 1910s, after the beginning of the first wave of the Great Migration, there would come the violent backlash of the Red Summer, as bloody riots targeting Black Americans broke out, some taking place in cities to which Black people had migrated, lured by the promise of better economic and social conditions, and fleeing racial terrorism.
And in the 1920s – as Richard Rothstein outlines in “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” – restrictive covenants, the practice of putting clauses in deeds to forbid the selling or renting of real estate to Black people, spread across the country.
Backlash would flare again after the civil rights movement. During the last years of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, his cause lost favor, even in liberal cities. For instance, just weeks after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a New York Times survey found that most white New Yorkers “said they believed the Negro civil rights movement had gone too far.”
In 1968, King was killed during Richard Nixon’s run for the White House. Nixon visited King’s wife and went to King’s funeral. His campaign also did some cursory outreach to Black voters, which led to him winning 15% of the Black vote, even though only 3% of Black voters identified as Republican that year.
But we now know what was happening behind the scenes. In an interview published in 2016, Nixon aide John Ehrlichman said: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and Black people.” He went on to explain how Nixon’s team underscored the criminalization of drugs as a way to discredit both groups, helping to usher in the war on drugs and mass incarceration, which have been catastrophic for the Black community.
I now believe that we are in the early phase of yet another backlash, with the dismantling of affirmative action, governmental attacks on the teaching of Black history and the full-court press on the political right to get rid of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
The symbolic alignment of a cross-section of Americans, particularly the young, with Black liberty and Black lives after the murder of George Floyd and the wave of protests that it brought forth, retreated with the speed of the tide before the advance of the tsunami.
The results for this era could be wide-reaching, altering the composition of student bodies and corporate workforces, locking in and perpetuating privilege and disadvantage for a generation. And as with previous backlashes, some liberals have grown weary, distracted or disaffected, and their allyship has withered and fallen away.
And then there are the more explicit attacks. Newly reported FBI data reveals that the number of hate crimes in schools nearly doubled between 2018 and 2022, with African Americans being the most frequent victims. The most common victims of hate crimes outside of schools were also African Americans.
This disturbing data arrived to little attention as people remain distracted by raging wars, a border crisis, the various court cases of a former president and the start of the presidential primaries.
I believe that the whiplash from these events has been particularly disorienting and enraging for younger Americans, for whom this may be their first experience of such a backlash, and that their frustration has manifested in a broad dissatisfaction with politics in general that has fed a dissatisfaction with the current administration.
The unfortunate reality of all this is that if history is our guide, the effects of these backlashes linger for decades.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.