Americans have already forgotten their history of backsliding on racial progress

No guarantees.
No guarantees.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Who was the first baseball player in the major leagues? Most people think the answer is Jackie Robinson. But in fact, a number of black players joined the major leagues during the period known as Reconstruction following the Civil War. It wasn’t until 1887 that managers and teams collectively agreed to ban black players. That racist pact held for another sixty years, until Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Robinson’s major league career is often hailed as a milestone in racial progress—and it was. But recognizing that baseball had been desegregated 60 years before Robinson played, and then resegregated, makes Robinson another kind of symbol. American society doesn’t always make progress on racism. Sometimes oppression gets worse. That’s a particularly ominous lesson at our current historical moment, given the barely concealed racism and demagoguery at the center of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

American mythology generally holds that race relations have consistently improved over the course of the country’s history. The Civil War overthrew slavery, the Civil Rights movement overthrew Jim Crow, and now we have a black president. And it’s undeniably the case that anti-racist sentiment has pushed back the forces of racism at given moments. The end of the Civil War, for example, led to a rush of racial idealism and hope, both among black people and more liberal whites. With black people enfranchised, and many ex-Confederates temporarily denied the vote, African Americans made remarkable gains in political representation. Hundreds of black politicians were elected to state legislatures; 16 were elected to the House of Representatives.

“I think there were important junctures during and after the war when a majority of white Northerners, at least, were won to an anti-slavery position, and many of them to the cause of racial equality,” Brian Kelly, a history professor who specializes in this time period at Queen’s University Belfast, tells Quartz. Kelly points out that many whites were “repulsed” by ex-Confederate violence against black people in Memphis and New Orleans following the war in 1866. Thousands of white Americans went south, risking their lives to aid newly freed slaves.

“Even within the South, by the end of the war,” Kelly tells Quartz, “there was seething antagonism among many southern whites at the Confederate leadership that had led them into war. Some were willing to throw in their lot with the party of emancipation, though that did not last.”

This tentative interracial truce soon fell apart, destroyed by widespread organized violence. Following the war, the Ku Klux Klan in the South engaged in one of the largest campaigns of domestic terrorism the United States has ever known. They killed, beat, and intimidated black people who voted, tried to organize politically, or had successful businesses.

In South Carolina’s York County, one of the most brutal sites of Klan violence, virtually all black men, and many black women, took to sleeping outdoors in the woods for fear of Klan attacks on their homes in the night. By the the time Reconstruction ended around 1880, its gains had been mostly reversed. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1935, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery.”

The period that followed Reconstruction came to be known as “the nadir of American race relations,” a term coined by historian Rayford Logan. During the long decades between the Civil War and World War II, black people did not make political gains. In fact, in many ways they lost ground. Across the South, Jim Crow segregation clamped down, forcing black people back into virtual slavery and peonage.

Nor was the North much of an escape. Having capitulated to racist terrorism, the whole country became more racist in its institutions and attitudes. Woodrow Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected president since Zachary Taylor in 1848, resegregated the federal government after his 1912 election. Whites-only bathrooms were reintroduced, and in some cases, screens were erected to separate black and white workers. In other instances, black workers were simply fired.

The KKK dominated the government of Indiana in the 1920s. In 1921, whites rioted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroying one of the most affluent black communities in the country, doing $20 million in damage, and leaving thousands homeless. The scale of brutality in Tulsa was unusual, but the violence itself was not. White vigilantes in towns throughout the north and west violently ejected black people as a matter of course.

The nadir stands as a clear warning to America today: progress is not inevitable. This is why white liberals like Jonathan Chait are misguided when they downplay the dangers of a Trump nomination or a Trump presidency, as Chait himself belatedly admitted. Yes, Trump’s policy prescriptions are vague, and he’s relatively uncommitted to many Republican priorities, such as blocking climate change legislation. But the one thing he’s made very clear is that he is the candidate of white supremacy. Trump has called Mexican immigrant racists. He’s advocated for a ban on Muslim immigration. He’s encouraged people at his rallies to assault black protestors.

That’s not to say that a Trump presidency would ensure an era as dreadful, violent, and hate-filled as the nadir. Black Americans ended that particularly disgraceful period in United States history through the Civil Rights movement. Those gains won’t be rolled back by Trump, despite the hopes of David Duke.

“Southern segregationists were able to impose Jim Crow in part because they were dealing with a black population that was still reeling from having suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Klan,” Kelly tells Quartz. “Today it is almost inconceivable that African Americans would allow themselves to be pushed back and abused in the same way.”

Still, America could lose significant ground under a Trump presidency. As the nadir shows, some gains can be reversed. Some hate can be revived.