A vast divide exists in the national imagination between the racial struggles of the civil rights era and the racial inequality of the present. The attitudes and legal strategies of segregationists in the civil rights era are conceptualized as explicit, gross, and founded exclusively in raw racial animus. In contrast, racial inequality in the present is conceptualized as subtle, subconscious, and structural. The causes of modern racial inequality—and the obstacles to its remediation—are thus characterized as fundamentally distinct from those undergirding historical racial inequality.
Drawing on the recent work of Elizabeth Gillespie McRae and Jeanne Theoharis, as well as other historians of the South and the civil rights movement, this Book Review argues that this over-simplified account obscures key continuities between our racial past and present. As the work of McRae, Theoharis, and others has shown, facially race-neutral opposition to racial equality and integration did not originate in the modern era but rather long predated Brown v. Board of Education in both the North and the South. Moreover, many of the justifications that segregationists offered for their actions—such as a desire for good schools and safe neighborhoods—do not look so very different from the justifications that we continue to rely on to legitimatize racial inequality today.
Thus, an accurate accounting of our national history of racial discrimination—rather than substantiating a sharp break between past and present—reveals many uncomfortable continuities. This Book Review suggests that recognizing and coming to terms with this more complex history is critical to contemporary racial-equality work, both in and outside the courts.
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