Racial Violence and the Politics of Innocence: From the Postwar South to Post-Racial America
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In 1962, James Baldwin identified racial innocence as the “crime” of being willfully untouched by the racial injustices of American life: “But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” Beginning with that critical insight, this dissertation argues that racial innocence exists not only in the mind, where Baldwin and contemporary scholars who take up his critique tend to locate it, but also in the very fabric our political rhetoric, policy formations, and political institutions. Applying American political development methods of tracking changes in political authority over time to the ideological production of “racial innocence,” this project offers a study of a major tributary of racial innocence today: the lineage of liberal law-and-order politics in post-WWII southern political discourse and state policy. Beginning in the 1940s, northern liberals began to spotlight the problem of “lawless” southern white violence, viewing it as deeply inconsistent constitutional guarantees and national principles. The following decade, in the context of Brown v. Board of Education and the black civil rights movement, the language of “law and order” traveled south, where it became an important rhetoric of various white resistance movements dedicated to hindering the impact of Brown. In a departure from scholarship that investigates law-and-order politics’ southern conservative origins, I highlight instead its centrality in the rhetoric and policies of southern moderates. Fighting to shore up economic and political power in the corporate-capitalist metropolises of the “New South” and maintain racial stratification in that transition, white moderates turned to the liberal and race-neutral language of “law and order.” Capturing the language of postwar racial liberalism enabled southern moderates to contain black protest on ostensibly “colorblind” grounds, preserve racial stratification in schools without the coarseness of Jim Crow violence, and entrench punitive law-and-order logic in a broadening range of state-level policy and practices. In the process, “law and order” became a defining political rhetoric, a heightened state interest, and emergent policy formation. In moving the region from the lawless Jim Crow violence to New South law-and-order New South, moderates durably impacted American racial formation around racial innocence.
- Political science