On his blog at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “Racists—and those who exploit racism—are rarely about the business of openly declaring themselves as such.” He finds especially egregious Southerners who, before the Civil War, exalted the “great moral truth of slavery” only to hide behind states’ rights after they lost. He also cites the example of George Wallace, who bellowed “segregation forever!” back in the 1960s while folks who might agree with him now are more euphemistic, arguing that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “destroyed privacy.”
Without wanting to comment on who qualifies as a racist and who doesn’t, and while definitely wanting to keep a ten-foot pole between this blog and arguments over Ron Paul, let me offer an example from Virginia history—one in which white politicians were interested in denying African Americans their rights but were not at all shy about admitting it.
Twenty-five years or so after the end of Reconstruction, delegates gathered in Richmond to write for themselves a new state constitution. They needed to deal with the nagging problem of black voters, but how to disfranchise them while not betraying the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteeing equal protection? Solving that puzzle was the convention’s top priority. The delegates predictably insisted that they weren’t racists, with the convention’s president, John Goode, assuring everyone: “Our people have no prejudice, no animosity, against members of the colored race.” Of course, such a statement would hardly have been necessary had it not accompanied a surprisingly straightforward declaration that the convention’s goal was to deny black people their right to vote. “The right of suffrage is not a natural right,” Goode explained.
From our entry on the Convention of 1901–1902:
The most-debated specific measure, though, was the so-called “understanding clause,” which required prospective voters—or at least those unable to pay a newly instituted poll tax—to give a “reasonable” explanation of any section of the new state constitution at the demand of a registration board. This board, of course, was empowered fully to decide on what was “reasonable.” Delegate Alfred P. Thom did not pretend that such boards would treat white and black voters equally. “[I]t would not be frank in me, Mr. Chairman,” he said, “if I did not say that I do not expect an understanding clause to be administered with any degree of friendship by the white man to the suffrage of the black man.” And just to clarify his meaning, he added, “I would not expect an impartial administration of the clause.”
Keep going in the entry and you’ll find a discussion over whether such a rule would disenfranchise too many illiterate whites. Some delegates, meanwhile, worried that it wouldn’t disenfranchise illiterate whites!
Although Coates uses the Reconstruction era and the Jim Crow years that followed as an example of a time when so-called racists hid their motives, I’m not sure that this is one of those cases. Their stated goal was to take away the vote from blacks, and mission accomplished.
IMAGE: “One Vote Less–Richmond Whig,” by Thomas Nast, published twice in Harper’s Weekly, in 1868 and in 1872