America Unraveled

"As Caldwell sees it, this standard version of American history ignores the disruption caused by the key judicial decisions and legislative actions of the fifties and sixties surrounding desegregation and civil rights. The Deep South under Jim Crow was a cruel “sham democracy” and an embarrassment to American self-regard as the standard-bearer of liberty. Hence a radical adjustment of the legal status of African-Americans was immediately necessary. The unanticipated result of the legislation, however, was a constitutional crisis that we have not only not gotten over, but one which we are not even aware is going on, some 50 or 60 years into it. According to Caldwell, northern whites imagined that the Civil Rights Act would essentially force southern whites to treat black Americans as well as they did—that is, with formal recognition of equality, theoretical protection of the law, and the ostensible right to eat in the same restaurants. Whites in general—and Caldwell cites ample polling data to support this contention—expected civil rights law to be brought into effect gradually, with minimal impact on their lives and communities.

Black Americans had a different conception of the legislation. They viewed it, legitimately, as revolutionary, as a promise of fundamental, material change. Whites, Caldwell argues, “saw themselves as making a grand and magnanimous gesture, cutting a heroic figure,” while many blacks, “and the most zealous among the civil rights activists of all races, saw whites as having entered a guilty plea in the court of history, and thus as repudiating the moral posturing on which the good name and good conscience of their constitutional republic had rested.”"