March 31st, 2016
History 304: United States 1945-Present
Race versus Class: Understanding Post-War America
In the understanding of Post-War American history, race is more important than class due to its influence in political elections and in the evolution of popular culture. Racial tensions caused people to come together by culture in order to ensure the maintenance of their way of life. The migration of millions of African Americans before 1945 set off a tidal-wave of problems that would last throughout the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty first. Race riots occurred in many major cities, including Detroit and Baltimore, leaving violence and discontent in their wake. As a result of these riots, history of America since 1945 divided itself. Race divided Post-War American history into a white history and black history, with smaller subsets such as Chicano history still being discovered.
The second half of the twentieth century was the beginning of a new chapter in both racial histories due to the rapid deindustrialization across the country. Hundreds of thousands of industrial employees were laid off as factories “replaced workers with new automated technology, and constructed new facilities” in either other parts of the city or in other countries (Sugrue, 128). Unfortunately, African American workers “bore the brunt” of this new problem (155). Blacks were the ones most likely to be in “unskilled occupations, were most susceptible to layoffs, and most vulnerable to replacement when plants automated,” due to racial discrimination by the white bosses (100). As a result of these practices, the African American community was economically destroyed when deindustrialization occurred. Once proud cities, such as Detroit, were faced with “rotting hulks of factory buildings, closed and abandoned, surrounded by blocks of boarded up-stores and restaurants” in the African American communities (Sugrue, 147). Blacks wanted the same right as whites, to flee their economic hardship. Unfortunately, this did not occur and blacks “bore the brunt of economic change, their options limited by discrimination, and their tenuous hold on factory jobs threatened by discrimination” (155). Their attempts at escaping these economic hardships, and the white attempts at stopping the blacks, created a racially divided United States and changed late twentieth century history.
The American city divided itself among the racial line. Take inner-city highway construction as an example. Highways were not built in white neighborhoods. Instead, they were built in the inner-city where African Americans lived, as “a handy device for razing slums” (47). In Detroit, these highways wiped out black businesses including many clubs and the YMCA (47). A white neighborhood would never have allowed this, but city planners doing this to a black neighborhood was not seen as a problem. The American city was developed upon a standard of racism throughout the late twentieth century. While whites were destroying what they considered to be the black ghetto, they would also not allow blacks to move into their neighborhoods. Those blacks that could move out of the so-called ghetto were forced to pay more for housing that was still not as nice as those in the white neighborhoods (34). Blacks, overall, had the “poorest-paying, most insecure jobs” and as such could not afford to move into better housing (34). An unfortunate part of American history was how “the process of housing segregation set into motion a chain reaction that reinforced patterns of racial inequality” (34). American cities were rising with tensions caused by these racially based economic disparities.
Racial tensions eventually led to race riots in major cities across the United States. These riots created a violence in the home-front not often seen in American history. One such riot was the Detroit riot of 1967. As a large number of blacks were arrested at an illegal-saloon and were allegedly victimized by police brutality, tensions rose above what the economic crisis had already caused. The morning after these arrests, thousands gathered in a protest against the “police brutality” (259). Altogether 43 people died and 7,231 were arrested. Thomas J. Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, claims that this riot, and others of the era, were caused by the “bitter legacy” of an economic situation that blacks had already lost (260). The younger generation of African-Americans were tired of being forced into the same economic situations “that their predecessors lived [in] during the 1930s” (257). The people wanted equality, and were willing to fight for it. This fight would change the social and political aspects of twentieth century American history.
During the fight for civil rights, race relations changed the outcome of many political decisions. As Sugrue stated, “race was as much a political as a social construction” (9). Race was an important part of regional and national politics especially in the years during and after the Civil Rights era. Supreme Court decisions Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) stated that it was necessary to integrate school children “through mandatory busing” (Cowie, 4). This busing was seen as a problem throughout the white community. As one Detroit man explained, “I’m not going to pay big high school taxes and pay more for a home so that somebody can ship my son 30 miles away to get an inferior education” (4). Many whites agreed with this sentiment, and decided to do something about the education of their children. Fearful whites took the racial issue to the political stage.
Worried whites decided George Wallace, presidential candidate in 1972, was the man to fix their racial problem. Wallace famously believed in segregation as the governor of Alabama and vowed not to be “’out niggered’ in politics” (4). His opponent, George McGovern, believed that “busing is not even a real issue,” which angered many whites (99). These two candidates show the two sides race had divided America into. People who supported Wallace believed that “integration was taking place on their backs” and jumped to the “immediate defense of white identity, home, and school” (99). On the other side of the issue, people believed that blacks should be integrated into white society. Although George Wallace was a well-liked democrat the “Democratic South was crumbling” due to the Democratic commitment to racial equality (130). More Southern voters, including Wallace, believed in Republican social ideals due to the idea that “’law and order’ beats ‘bread and butter’” (131). The belief in a white racial superiority changed the political landscape of Post-War America. Economics were no longer in control of the country. Race relations were changing how late twentieth century America would be remembered.
One of the most well-known presidents of the United States, Richard Nixon, was elected to office thanks to the racial tensions. Nixon gained popularity by supporting the “working class” which at the time was a nice way of saying whites (236). He formed a coalition of Catholics, Poles, Italians, and Irish along with other whites, while excluding Jewish people and blacks (126). By doing this, he already was gaining the support of many members of the working class. Nixon is also credited with shifting the white man’s political worries away from “his bread-and-butter material concerns” to the ideas of “social issues and patriotism” (126). He focused his campaign along the idea of helping white America and excluding all others. White Americans loved this idea and had seen it before, in the campaign of George Wallace. Wallace had combined the “fears of blackness and fears of disorder” along with the “connection many white Americans made between blackness and criminality, blackness and poverty, blackness and cultural degradation” (129). Nixon used this fear to ensure voters would support him throughout his presidency. Nixon went as far as to use the race driven popular culture of the day to ensure that things were working his way. Race influenced popular culture due to its control of American politics in the twentieth century.
Race changed American popular culture, which is an important aspect of American history. Music, which had previously been apolitical, was now racially charged. The rise of country music allowed for a “rebellious yet conservative political identity for America’s modern white working class” (170). The music, which became most popular throughout the south, allowed for the white man to talk about his social troubles. Songs, such as “Okie from Muskogee,” quickly became the political anthem of the white male (172). Country music had become extremely racially charged and politicians including Richard Nixon were quick to use this to their advantage, thus furthering the racial divide. President Nixon invited several different country artists to the White House in his efforts to continue the culture war. He invited Merle Haggard, singer of “Okie from Muskogee,” and Johnny Cash to sing even though Nixon and his associates had no love for country music (168). Nixon knew that country music would help “build a cross-class cultural alliance” and his goal worked (168). The South was truly converting for the first time from Democratic to a more Republican area. “Redneck” ideals, encouraged by Nixon and Country music, were returning Southern white communities to the spirit of white ‘culture’ which the South had not been seen since before World War II. Race relations shown in country music changed the political atmosphere, thus changing the history of Post-War America.
Race did not only influence the history of country music in the United States, but also influenced the disco and anti-disco movements. Disco itself became an economic rallying cry for all including women, gays, blacks, Latinos, and whites (320). People went to the discotheques in the hope of forgetting their problems (317). Eventually this idea of racial inclusion once again exploded into problems and the anti-disco movement was born. The anti-disco movement was all about “region, race, economics, and sexuality” (323). White males had once again decided that those of a different skin color must be the reason for their economic problems. The anti-disco movement “[destroyed] the last remaining musical scene that was in any meaningful sense racially mixed” (323). No longer did the white man willingly mingle with the black. As Jefferson Cowie, author of Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of The Working Class, explained “white America had rediscovered its sense of self” (323). Race had changed the popular culture of twentieth century America. The need of the white male to segregate themselves from the black formed an America based on race relations.
Race influenced post-war American history in ways that historians are still attempting to understand. For years the 1970s were considered to be a “cultural void” whereas now historians are coming to understand that the history was only forgotten (319). Much of the late twentieth century history was about racial tensions in the United States. Politics depended upon who could help the white population stay economically and socially above the black communities. Popular culture of the era was based around whether or not America should be racially inclusive or exclusive. The rise and fall of country music, disco, and anti-disco were based upon people’s feelings on the matter of race. If race was not a problem for Americans, the twentieth century might have looked vastly different. Events throughout American history, such as the fall of major industrial cities, were influenced by race. White Americans may have felt the economic hardships caused by deindustrialization, but they ensured that the African-American communities felt it harder. While race was extremely important in the understanding the history of Post-War America it was not the only responsible party for the events that occurred. As Cowie explained, “class and race are fundamentally intertwined social identities, mutually constructing each other, marbled together into a sociological whole, but a whole that has proven to be one of the most elusive identities in American history” (236). Race was extremely important to understanding post-war American history, but its problems may not have existed if a class struggle did not occur at the same time.