The push for racial equality has been met with resistance throughout American history — and that dynamic is something liberals as well as conservatives have played a role in, Cornell University history professor Lawrence Glickman said. The “resentment” over the pace of the civil rights movement in the 1960s came to be known as white backlash, and it still plays a role in affecting policy today.
White backlash in the United States dates back to at least the period after the Civil War, known as the Reconstruction, when there was “a brief experiment in racial equality and interracial democracy,” Glickman explained Thursday on CBSN.
“One of the key elements about the Reconstruction period was how quickly so many whites turned against it and thought it had gone too far and too fast,” he said. “I’m talking within one or two years of the close of the Civil War, you began to see this discourse about ‘whoa, whoa, we need to slow down here,’ when the fact is that racial equality was really only a glimmer at that point.”
The “second attempt to build a true interracial democracy” in the 1960s saw the same resistance and “very similar language,” Glickman said.
“A really important part of the language of backlash that white people used in the 1960s was that they really emphasized their own fears, which were typically unfounded about what the consequences of racial equality would be, and they also emphasized their own fragility, their own emotional concern,” he said. “It’s such an inversion of what was really going on in history, which is that African Americans fighting for racial equality at that point had every right to be exhausted and fatigued and fed up and feeling fragile.”
The same “language of special privileges” can be heard today when people use the phrase “all lives matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Glickman said.
“A lot of proponents of the white backlash saw racial equality as some special gift, some special demand by African Americans, when it was simply a demand for social justice and equality,” he said. “I think we see the same thing with a language like ‘all lives matter’ … It’s another inversion of demands for equality in which people who have more privilege relative to others feel like their privilege is being taken away when we shine a spotlight on injustice in American society.”
It was not just conservatives and southerners, “but many northern white liberals who participated” in backlash to the civil rights movement, Glickman said. And while backlash “has become fundamental to modern conservatism,” it has also been “a huge constraint on American progressive and liberal politics.”
“The reason for that is that so many liberal politicians are fearful of setting off a backlash,” Glickman said. “They’re fearful of what happened in the 1960s happening again, which was when many white people left the Democratic coalition and eventually joined the Republican Party. Many backed off their previous support for New Deal-type reforms.”
The women’s rights movement in the 1970s was also “constrained by the fear of setting up backlash,” Glickman said.
But he noted that although President Lyndon B. Johnson was warned that white backlash over his support for civil rights legislation might cost him the election of 1964, Johnson won “overwhelming.”
“What he said was that there were a lot more ‘frontlash’ votes than backlash votes, and what he meant by that is that we hear disproportionately about people who oppose the civil rights movement but there are actually a lot of Americans who support it,” he said.
The Civil Rights Act became law in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act became law the next year.