Imprisoned by the Past

Libby Prison on Cary Street, Richmond, circa 1865. Photo credit: Flickr

by James A. Bacon

As a parting gift to Virginia, outgoing Attorney General Mark Herring has overturned 58 opinions issued by attorneys general between 1904 and 1967 that supported racially discriminatory laws from poll taxes to the prohibition of interracial marriage.

“While these discriminatory and racist laws are no longer on the books in Virginia, the opinions still are, which is why I am proud to overrule them,” Herring said in a press release today. “We are not the Virginia we used to be, and in order to truly be the Virginia that we want to be in the future we need to remove any last vestiges of these racist laws.”

Herring’s action will have no practical effect — the laws supported by these opinions have all been overturned. But many African-American politicians and activists found solace in the gesture.

“Just like Virginia wiped racist, outdated laws off its books in recent years, so too should it wipe away racist, outdated legal opinions that supported and helped to implement those laws,” said Cynthia Hudson, a former chief deputy attorney general and chair of the Commission to Examine Racial Equity in Virginia’s law.

I have mixed emotions. I can see the symbolic value of getting these heinous rulings off the books. (See a compilation here.) We should slam the door on Virginia’s racist past. However, I find the fixation on the past a distraction from current-day injustices that have origins unrelated to historic racism. Continually dredging up ancient wrongs feeds African Americans’ sense of alienation, victimhood and grievance, and it perpetuates the false narrative of systemic modern-day racism.

America has spent the past 55 years (using Herring’s demarcation line of 1967) not only expunging racism from American laws but trying to make amends through the never-ending expansion of the welfare state. We’re not perfect. Some of our institutions, especially criminal justice and housing, could benefit from fine-tuning.

But the primary sources of “inequity” — unequal group outcomes — has no connection to the 58 racist rulings, some of which date back a century.

What are the sources of immiseration today? Consider these:

  • Breakdown of the family structure and atomization of society, especially among the poor (of all racial/ethnic groups). This root cause of poverty and social dysfunction stems from society-wide changes in social mores whose leading champions are “progressives.” The decline of the two-parent family is aggravated by a welfare system that punishes marriage. This has nothing to do with slavery, Jim Crow, or racism.
  • Disintegration of the public school system. The old system had flaws, but it was a hell of a lot better than the one we’ve created. Discipline and order in the classroom are eroding. Standards and expectations are collapsing. Academic achievement is in free-fall. “Progressives,” who have been running Virginia’s schools for years, totally own this.
  • Rising murder rate. Similarly, the old system wasn’t perfect. But de-legitimizing police, policing and the criminal justice system hasn’t helped one bit. Murder rates have risen dramatically, and almost all of the increase has occurred in African-American communities. African Americans are paying the price.
  • College loans and indentured servitude. “Progressives” have told us that everyone who wants to should be able to go to college, and society will help pay for it. Literally millions of Americans have taken on more college-loan debt than they can possibly repay. This massive subsidy has enabled colleges and universities to jack up tuition, fees, room and board, and support vast cadres of “progressive” faculty and staff. Meanwhile, many students — disproportionately poor and minority — drop out of the system without earning the credentials they need to boost their income. Legally, they can never discharge the debt. Their access to credit suffers. Another example of unintended consequences.
  • Unaffordable housing. The costs of renting and owning houses is increasing far more rapidly than incomes, reflecting the proliferation of environmental regulations and zoning laws that restrict the supply of housing. Scarcity displaces the poor first. “Progressives” invented and propagated these laws. It must be said that middle-class homeowners often have captured the zoning laws to protect their property values, a major source of middle-class wealth. But “progressives” remain a big part of the problem. They push policies to bolster minority home ownership — even though such ownership leads to foreclosures that affect the poor and minorities disproportionately. The 2007 sub-prime fiasco, the result of do-good policies that obliterated traditional lending standards, wiped out more African-American wealth than any other event in American history.

I could go on and on. “Progressive” policy prescriptions today — now, in the 21st century, not the Jim Crow era — have proven disastrous to African-Americans at every turn. “Progressives” benefit from these policies, which invariably mean more spending, more sinecures, more consulting work, more status, more influence, and more power for them. Focusing on past wrongs serves their ends by distracting from the massive policy failures of the present.