Until recently, a key feature of the historiography of the sixties in general and the Civil Rights era in particular was the idea of the “backlash,” where the triumphs and changes made by movements focused on race, gender and sexuality, and ending the Vietnam War eventually flew to close to the sun and alienated large portions of the white working and middle class, giving rise to an ascendant conservatism exemplified by the Nixon and ultimately, Reagan administrations. This perspective changed in the early 2000’s, as a growing number of historians began examining the rise of the New Right as a kind of parallel movement to the much more studied activism of the 1950s and 1960s. Alongside historians such as Lisa McGirr, Joseph Crespino, Kevin Kruse, and Rick Perlstein, Matthew Lassiter locates the fracturing of the New Deal coalition and the era of a “New South” not in an overtly racial backlash to the Civil Rights movement, but in the growth of suburbia as a major node of power in American Society. The Silent Majority primarily focuses on Atlanta and Charlotte as case studies of how “the primary demographic forces behind postwar political realignment in the New South became the sprawling middle-class suburbs and the expanding black electorate, not the defiant Dixiecrats and the defeated massive resisters” (Lassiter, 41). Lassiter expands his focus towards the end of the book to make a compelling case against the ideas of Southern Exceptionalism, the divide over de jure versus de facto segregation, and the successes of a “Southern Strategy” in electoral politics in lieu of an emphasis on the meritocratic ideal of the suburbs couched in the language of the rights of property owners and freedom of choice in terms of education.
Lassiter begins by looking at Atlanta. “The city too busy to hate” and “capital of the New South” provides a key window into postwar changes in the region. Following Brown v. Board, tensions in Atlanta existed not only between whites and African-Americans, but between the rural denizens espousing massive resistance against de-segregation, including shuttering all private schools, and the residents of Atlanta’s northern suburbs, who sought a program of peaceful one-way integration that would not tarnish the city’s reputation for corporate expansion (Lassiter, 45). Lassiter spotlights the grassroots nature of suburban activism by focusing on Help Our Public Education (HOPE), founded by two suburban mothers to prevent disruptions in their children’s education (61). HOPE was virulently castigated by proponents of massive resistance as it shattered their contention that all of white Georgia was united against the prospect of school desegregation (78). HOPE became an exemplar of “pragmatic segregation”, where a small handful of high-achieving black students would be admitted into white schools, meeting the bare minimum requirements of desegregation while avoiding outright integration. While these activists could be seen favorably compared to the demagoguery of massive resisters, Lassiter writes that “Atlanta’s open-schools movement never countered the segregationist crusade to preserve southern tradition with an alternative argument about the responsibility to atone for injustices of the past, but instead with a color-blind vision of a prosperous future liberated entirely from the burdens of southern history” (104). Lassiter ends his section on Atlanta by chronicling the failures of the city to annex the growing northern suburbs, leading to segregation along residential lines which shaped the future of the city. In switching the focus to Charlotte, Lassiter provides an example with similar origins but a different ending.
In switching to Charlotte, Lassiter explains the “Charlotte Way” as “a civic ideology that embraced the Sunbelt Synthesis of economic progress through racial moderation while managing to avoid the hubristic excesses of Atlanta Exceptionalism” (128). After an attempt at a limited, voluntary desegregation plan led to a white mob assaulting a black student, Charlotte’s civic and business leaders devised a new plan to ensure order and prevent violence while attempting to forge a biracial consensus (128-129). When the limits of one-way desegregation led to a push for two-way busing and integration, the Concerned Parents Association (CPA) fought back using language that stressed ideas of taxpayer rights and privileges, rather than outright racial animus, to try and thwart complete integration. Using the CPA as a prime example of “the Silent Majority” as coined by the Nixon administration, Lassiter notes how these “Forgotten Americans” managed to appropriate the language of individual freedoms and rights from Civil Rights leaders while simultaneously ignoring the origins of racial, residential segregation. An ahistorical viewpoint of color-blind individualism and merit that Lassiter states “underlay[s] a predisposition to reject-or more often to fail to even consider-the abstract proposition that the government’s culpability in concentrating black residents in a certain part of the city should have any personal impact on middle-class lifestyles” (142). Charlotte differs from Atlanta by the ability of the city to incorporate its growing suburbs, leading to an interracial alliance against upper class proponents of busing that were unaffected by its implementation (194-5). Following these case studies, Lassiter looks at the bigger picture of how the suburbs have shaped modern America.
As we noted in our last meeting, racial integration, busing in particular, is hardly a phenomena occurring solely in the South. As the suburban model spread throughout the nation, Lassiter puts a finger on why measures like busing lead to such virulent reactions. “The meritocratic ethos celebrated throughout America’s upper-middle-class suburbs has always contained two central contradictions: the refusal to acknowledge that any historical forces greater than individual accomplishment shaped the spatial patterns of the metropolitan landscape and the ‘neighborhood schools’ presumption that children of privilege should receive every advantage of the consumer affluence accumulated by their parents instead of competing on an egalitarian playing field” (217). This analysis repudiates the idea of de jure segregation being a different species than de facto segregation, where the former is Un-American and remediable while the latter is simply a product of circumstance. The failure of Bradley v. Richmond to withstand appeal, due in large part to a “massive resistance” of middle class families up to the Nixon administration prevented a wide-scale challenge to segregation resulting from residential patterns (292-3). Going forward, this allowed for a view that segregation was not a shame of the nation, but something that was triumphantly defeated and relegated to the past. Suburban politics have become the dominate politics of modern America, with a focus every electoral cycle on “soccer moms”, naïve or cynical declarations that racism is over, and the primacy of property rights over individual lives. Near the end of his work, Lassiter states that “the dominant ethos of American suburbia has always idealized the present and celebrated the future at the expense of any critical reflection on the past” (322-3). In many ways, this ethos has spread beyond the artificial boundaries of the gated communities where it spawned and became an ethos for national politics in the twenty first century. In short, we can never get away from the sprawl.
- Throughout the book, opponents of busing speak in a “color-blind” language of meritocracy and the rights of taxpayers. How does this construction of rights fit in to our ongoing discussion about the nature of rights?
- On page 115 Lassiter writes “the resilience of Atlanta Exceptionalism lies in the futuristic amalgamation of pieces from across the American landscape: The Sunbelt growth ideology of Houston and Los Angeles, the Rust Belt poverty of Detroit and Newark, the elitist enclaves of Manhattan and Grosse Pointe, the consumer ethos of suburban privilege that extends from the subdivisions of Orange County to the townships of New Jersey and Connecticut.” Taken as a sum of its parts, can Atlanta be seen as a microcosm of post Civil Rights America?
- Most Americans are familiar with Brown v. Board and the 1964/1965 Civil Rights/Voting Rights Acts. Have other Supreme Court decisions mentioned in The Silent Majority such as Baker v. Carr, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Bradley v. Richmond, and Milliken v. Bradley been neglected in discussing the triumphs and shortcomings of the Civil Rights Era?
- Do you agree with Lassiter’s argument that “de-facto” segregation is a historical fiction?
- How does The Silent Majority demonstrate the limits of the American Constitutional system in addressing systematic issues such as racism and barriers to socioeconomic mobility? Is one of the jobs of The Supreme Court correcting the injustices of the past?