Women's Hidden Influence: Mothers, Race, and the American Republic

 
 

Women are deeply effective in the transmission of mores, as are the churches, schools, and civic organizations that they serve and lead. If these institutions were touched by white supremacy even into the 1970s, how can those educated by such institutions escape the influence of these opinions in their own interpretations of contemporary racial politics?

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Recently, a teacher remarked to a friend that a young Hispanic child was “too clever for her own good” and would likely become “one of those Mexicans from the west side who end up in prison.” I found the comment unsurprising. I have taught college students who attended Texas school districts that were still being forced to comply with Brown in the early 2000s. In 2016, the Texas State Board of Education gave serious consideration to a textbook that described Mexicans as lazy.

Still, I was disturbed that numerous Hispanic students are being educated by this woman. The small choices she makes—classifying academic potential or deviant behavior, withholding or applying discipline, offering or not offering small opportunities for learning or leadership—will reverberate for years for her Latino students. What law or policy could ever touch this teacher’s attitude? What could protect a young girl from powerful women who think like this?

The import of such seemingly small choices is the subject of Elizabeth Gillespie McRae’s new book, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. For McRae, like Montesquieu and Tocqueville before her, choices about education and mores are the realm of women. McRae argues that many civically engaged American white women “guaranteed that racial segregation seeped into the nooks and crannies of public life and private matters, of congressional campaigns and PTA meetings, and of textbook debates and day care decisions,” and she provides the historical evidence to prove her claim. McCrae calls this political activity, carried out by female educators, civic leaders, and mothers across the country “massive resistance.” As McRae demonstrates with ample documentation and historical evidence, a woman undertaking such resistance could be “a progressive, a liberal, a New Dealer, a conservative, a member of the old or new right, or a moderate, a hardliner, a democrat, a republican, or an independent.”

But McRae’s work is flawed by a serious blind spot: she fails to interrogate her own assumptions about the facts she uncovers. If enfranchised, influential white women perpetuated racism, then wouldn’t influential and enfranchised white women have similarly influenced integration? Similarly, McRae fails to fully reflect on what racism’s ubiquity means for contemporary politics and educational reforms, which she characterizes as largely a problem for American conservatism. In truth, no political party can escape the reach of this history. Still, in spite of its flaws, McRae’s book is a significant contribution both to the study of civic republicanism and to American political history. It challenges us to confront the racial prejudices we may have learned within our own churches, communities, and families.

Race, Women, and Republics

Two foundational observations of the civic republican tradition are particularly relevant. A third observation complicates McRae’s work.

First and most importantly, the civic republican tradition notes the destructiveness of racial inequality in republics, which depend upon equality before the law. Racial inequality affects both laws and mores, which together interact to further complicate racial constructs. Montesquieu views the inequalities introduced by slavery as particularly devastating for a republic because republics are corrupted by inequality. Similarly, Tocqueville, in his famous treatment of race in Democracy in America, argues that slavery taints civilizations in a persistent and penetrating way. According to Tocqueville, slavery—and the continuous enmity between the races that it causes—would be impossible to erase if intermarriage did not occur. Tocqueville rightly predicted that, even after abolition, the memory of slavery would haunt both white and black Americans in a way unknown to the slaveholding societies of the ancient world.

Secondly, like McRae, the civic republican tradition appreciates women’s significance in shaping and transmitting mores. Montesquieu argues that women’s interest and energies are essential to social change, and Tocqueville claims: “It is the women who make mores.” McRae, Tocqueville, and Montesquieu agree: women best reach the most private parts of life, educating citizens in a more direct manner than laws alone.

Third, while the civic republican tradition emphasizes the importance of racial equality and women’s political independence, it also demonstrates the limitations of law. Montesquieu observes that “when one wants to change the mores and manners, one must not change them by the laws, as this would appear to be too tyrannical; it would be better to change them by other mores and other manners.” Tocqueville similarly argues that a democracy’s health is found in its intermediary institutions, such as churches, schools, and civic groups—all areas in which women have great influence.

But what happens when the women—the maintainers or changers of mores—are deeply touched with the ugly poison of racism? This is the troubling question McRae seeks to answer.

Mothers of Massive Resistance

McRae’s research documents the history of republican inequalities, fostered by women’s cultivation of social and political mores through the family and education, in a way that makes one wonder how our current racial conflicts could be avoided. She depicts a social and moral world that, in spite of the Civil War’s ending of slavery, continued to reify and replicate racial differences and social beliefs in Anglo-Saxon superiority from the early twentieth century until the 1970s.

McRae’s book is essentially divided into pre-Brown and post-Brown accounts. Before Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate but equal” school systems to be unconstitutional in 1954, northern progressives and southern segregationists used the tools of both the state and voluntary civic engagement to ensure racial segregation. Young college women working in conjunction with the New York Eugenics Records Office served as “fieldworkers for eugenics work” using “the new progressive state to give shape to racial segregation on the ground, translating legislation into local practice” by documenting sexual behaviors, living conditions, and physical appearances of local populations in order to stop the sharing of “bad germplasm.” Local schoolteachers in Virginia held the keys to the futures of their students when, under the state’s Racial Integrity Act, they appraised the racial and ethnic background of students, labeling them and sending them into classroom assignments organized by perceptions of racial purity.

Following Brown, each southern state created legislation allowing local districts to determine children’s school assignments under the auspices of “morals, conduct, health and personal standards,” categories that often functioned as covers for racial prejudice.

Proponents of segregation, such as Mississippi’s Women’s Activities and Youth Work (WAYW), sought other indirect means to maintain racial distinctions. The WAYW coordinated with the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion to censor textbooks teaching racial equality and to offer essay contests awarding money for the best reflections on segregation’s benefits. A coalition of Mississippi civic groups, with the sanction of the state and $2 million in state funds, held a Centennial Celebration boasting “hoop skirts” and [Confederate] uniforms” in the middle of the Civil Rights demonstrations that were roiling the state, sending minorities a clear message by reenacting the pageantry of the antebellum South.

Following Brown, McRae shows, objections to federal intervention began to shift from forthright concerns for racial superiority to what she calls the “core talking points of the New Right”: parental authority over moral, sexual, and academic guidance and religion in the public sphere. Former segregationists transitioned “to a more color-blind conservative political discourse that emphasized constitutional issues and property rights.” Through a careful analysis of interactions between leading segregationists, civic clubs, and conservative groups, she proves that such cross-pollination did occur. But by extension, she implicitly concludes that all conservative suspicions of centralization and federal power derive from this racist history, without any of the careful analytical work that laid the groundwork for her previous arguments.

McRae’s evidence does show that a significant number of those who espouse “family first policies” or decentralization came to these conclusions through a socialization process closely connected to a history of racially motivated political activity. Yet it is surely the case that she only captures a subset of people’s motivations for subscribing to such views, which have their own healthy philosophical roots that exist independently of America’s fraught racial history. She also does not account for the effect abortion policy has on the behavior of conservative women and their political identification with the Republican Party. These oversights end her careful reflections on an underwhelming note.

The History of Racism Matters

It is helpful to think of McRae’s history in the way that Tocqueville thought of his own undertaking. He seeks at the beginning of Democracy in America our “point of departure,” which he believes sets us on the path of republican liberty. But as he notes, our history will always be shaped by the treatment of Native American and African American persons at formative moments in our nation’s existence.

For this reason, McRae’s history matters. How quickly can people forget the memory of direct and indirect ways of keeping racial and ethnic minorities from equality before the law? And given the effectiveness of women in the transmission of mores, and the importance of churches, schools, and civic organizations, if these institutions were touched by white supremacy even into the 1970s, how can those educated by such institutions escape the influence of these opinions in their own interpretations of contemporary racial politics? In the language of Montesquieu, it now appears that while we were able to change the laws concerning race, we failed to sufficiently transform the mores. In what ways do ideas of white racial superiority linger, for the reasons that Tocqueville and Montesquieu help us to see?

Because law or policy is always applied by persons formed by their society’s mores, the persistence of racism endangers equality before the law even when such equality might exist de jure. The arbitrariness introduced by racism endangers our hope that the law dispassionately rules us, because our individual standing before the law is dependent on how decision-makers perceive race and ethnicity. Examples of significant political consequences emerging from inequalities in perception abound. One only need think here of the death of Philando Castile and of the ensuing silence of the normally vociferous NRA, or of the president’s rejection of immigrants from “s***hole” countries like El Savador, Haiti, and certain African countries the same week that Ghanaian immigrant Private Emmanuel Mensah died rescuing others from a Bronx fire that killed thirteen people.

The nexus between racial perceptions and policy questions is also apparent in the right’s outpouring of compassion, and withholding of questions of desert, in response to J.D. Vance’s account of white opiate addicts in Hillbilly Elegy. Compare this to the heaps of scrutiny poured out upon the cultures, intelligence, and capacities of poor blacks and Hispanics by persons like Samuel Huntington, Jason Richwine, and Phyllis Shlaffly. On the other side of the political spectrum, the left’s acceptance of the Donuhue-Levinn hypothesis, which argues that increased abortion rates among minorities led to lower crime rates, is a nod to the early progressive embrace of abortion and contraception for the sake of racial eugenics.

Alasdair MacIntyre says that the problem with modern discourse is that it is a civil war carried out through words. When it comes to the problem of race, he is literally correct. The racism undergirding the Civil War never faded away, and it will not until we grapple with histories like McRae’s. At a moment when Rod Dreher and others are encouraging us to move towards the local and to build “shires” of the western tradition among ourselves, McRae’s history gives us reason to pause. It is time for us to inspect and scrutinize our own beloved teachers, churches, and mothers who have often made the local so monstrous for minorities in America.

Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo is assistant professor of political science at Texas State University.

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