For presidents, playing white backlash politics like Donald Trump is a choice - James T. Campbell
In two furious speeches over the Fourth of July weekend, President Trump answered the question he had previously fumbled about his reason for seeking reelection. Six months after his first briefing about the coronavirus pandemic, six weeks after the killing of George Floyd, the president has found his platform: white backlash. In his words, he is running to defend “our values” against “anarchists,” “agitators” and “looters.”
This is not the first time Americans have stood at this crossroads, choosing between the paths of racial reckoning and racial reaction. In the summer of 1964, American cities were convulsed by protests triggered by the police killing of a 15-year-old black student named James Powell. With fires still raging, President Lyndon Johnson and his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, met privately in the White House to discuss what to do — and what not to do. In the conversation, unimaginable in today’s political climate, the two ideological adversaries agreed on the perils of the course that Trump now chooses.
The summer of 1964 was a pivotal moment in the history of the African American freedom movement. On July 2, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, tolling the end of three and a half centuries of legal discrimination. Yet even as he did so, a chorus of pollsters and pundits warned of a “white backlash” — a newly coined term, referring to a growing legion of white voters convinced that civil rights had come “too fast,” that African Americans demanded too much, that the extension of equal rights to black people somehow threatened the rights of white people.
Evidence of a racial realignment in American politics was everywhere in 1964. Perhaps the best example was Goldwater’s decision to oppose the Civil Rights Act. The vote was a departure for the Arizonan, a longtime member of the NAACP, who insisted his objection was not to integration but to what he saw as government infringement of property rights. But the fact of his vote was enough to endear him to Southern white voters. In the November election, the Republicans swept all five states of the Deep South for the first time ever.
The unlikely electoral success of Alabama Gov. George Wallace provided another barometer of backlash. Wallace is remembered today for his third-party presidential bid in 1968, but he also contested a handful of northern Democratic primaries in 1964. “If I ran outside the South and got 10%, it would be a victory,” he told a reporter. “It would shake their eyeteeth in Washington.”
He did far better than that. Just nine months removed from his defiant “stand in the schoolhouse door” at the University of Alabama, Wallace garnered a third of the Democratic primary vote in Wisconsin. In Maryland a month later, he won a whopping 43 percent.
The decade’s first ghetto uprisings erupted at this moment of political change. On July 16, a white building superintendent on New York’s Upper East Side hosed down a group of black students sitting on his stoop. He may or may not have threatened to, “wash you clean,” — using a slur to describe the group — as he did so. The soaked students responded by pelting him with bottles and trash. An off-duty white policeman rushed to the scene and fatally shot 15-year-old James Powell, who may or may not have brandished a knife.
By the time the smoke cleared a week later, broad swaths of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant had been reduced to ash. Over the next four weeks, similar clashes between police and protesters erupted in Rochester, N.Y; Paterson and Jersey City, N.J.; Philadelphia, and Chicago.