“Sometimes we misjudge the meaning of events unfolding around us.
George Tames/The New York Times
There have been many columnists for The New York Times, many of whom I have only heard or read about, some legendary in their skill and influence.
One of those who came before me was a man named Thomas Wicker, a Southerner like myself. He’d been the lone Times reporter accompanying President John F. Kennedy on a trip to Dallas, and dictated the details of the assassination from a phone booth. Wicker, who wrote under the byline Tom Wicker, went on to inherit the column of the retiring Arthur Krock, whom The Times called “the dean of Washington pundits, who had covered every president since Calvin Coolidge.”
In 1965, The Voting Rights Act, one of the seminal pieces of civil rights legislation in the history of this country, was signed into law. Soon after, in August of that year, Wicker penned a most prescient column, one I have recalled often, which contained some wise caution, but also some naïve optimism.
“But since at best the Negroes can make themselves no more than a minority of the Southern electorate, Democratic leaders here are apprehensive on two counts. The least likely is the possibility that the Republican Party, newly resurgent in the South, might seek to isolate Negroes in a hapless Democratic Party and turn itself into a larger white man’s party.”
But that is precisely what the Republican Party has done, particularly in the South.
Wicker didn’t believe that this would happen, in part because white Southerners also approved and benefited from “the Democratic approach to welfare and economic problems.” In his estimation: “Where the pocketbook collides with the race issue, the pocketbook usually wins.”
Wrong again. History has shown us over and over that white racists will consistently vote and act against their own interest so as to oppose or deny Black people. As Heather McGhee so brilliantly argues in her most recent book, “The Sum of Us,” they will drain the pool rather than share it with Black people.
When slavery was ended in this country, it would have been smart for poor whites and Blacks to make common cause because they had common economic interests. America — and Western culture — taught white people that there was intrinsic value to whiteness, even if you were poor, that it was a racial Rolex that could always be bartered.
So, the preservation of whiteness is a driving force of the racists’ political prerogative, even if they are working class, struggling or poor. As Walter Johnson wrote in the Boston Review in 2018, “The history of white working-class struggle, for example, cannot be understood separate from the privileges of whiteness.”
And Wicker continued in his 1965 column:
“Perhaps more immediate is the fear that Negroes will go into the Democratic Party in great numbers but become a sort of outcast ‘bullet vote’ — with whites automatically lining up against Negroes in primaries, outvoting them consistently, and thus keeping racist politics alive.”
Instead of this, white racists simply left the Democratic Party for the Republican one, and kept “racist politics alive” there.
As Wicker put it, “Racist politics, in the final analysis, depends on exclusion of Negroes from voting.” As he summarized:
“The disenfranchisement of Southern Negroes in this century resulted directly from the corrupt and violent competition of Southern Bourbons and Southern agrarians for the Negro vote in the late 19th century. Fearing the Negro would tip the balance against them, the Bourbons raised the flag of white supremacy and aroused the poor-white agrarians against the Negro; Bourbons and agrarians then combined in the name of white solidarity to eliminate the Negro from the electorate as if he did not exist.”
Now you see establishment Republicans joining together to do the very same thing with a wave of voter suppression bills across the country.
And this is not just the work of politicians: A majority of Republican voters are also in favor of many of these voter restrictions that would disproportionately affect Black people. According to a Pew Research Center report issued Thursday, a majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters now oppose the automatic registration of all eligible citizens to vote and support more voter identification laws and purging voter lists of voters who haven’t recently voted or confirmed their registration.
Wicker ended on a note of optimism, that there would eventually be “white competition to win the Negro vote,” and “if so, the competition surely will mean a new volatility in Southern politics and society, a new freedom for the white politician to move beyond race to the broader issues of national life, and a new opportunity for the Negro to have his needs considered instead of his skin.”
That day never came.
In the moment, Wicker’s optimism was understandable. As columnists, we exist and write in the moment, trying our best to view events in context. But, sometimes, too often, we misjudge the meaning of events unfolding around us.
One thing this column by Wicker has taught us was this: no matter how hopeful the moment, no matter how great the advance, never — ever — underestimate white supremacy.”