From Little Rock to Jena

On the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s use of troops during the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, Shelby Steele finds that this event “was the beginning of a profoundly different America.” He writes:

[T]he deeper historical importance of the Little Rock crisis follows from the simple fact that it was televised. . . .[T]here was the daily gauntlet that the black students were made to walk–innocence face to face with evil. And, finally, there was great suspense. How would it all end? Would there by a military clash, another little civil war between North and South?
So Americans watched by the millions and, in this watching, saw something that would change the country fundamentally. Every day for weeks they saw white people so consumed with racial hatred that they looked bestial and subhuman. When white racism was a confident power, it could look like propriety itself, like good manners. But here, in its insecurity, it was grotesque and shocking. Worse, it was there for the entire world to see, and so it broke through the national denial. The Little Rock crisis revealed the evil at the core of segregation, and it launched the stigmatization of white Americans as racists that persists to this day. After Little Rock whites stood permanently accused. They would have to prove a negative–that they were not racist–in order to claim decency. And this need to forever beg one’s innocence is the very essence of white guilt. . . .
By the mid-1960s this [guilt] had already given us a new illiberal liberalism–a busybody, interventionist liberalism that was more bent on erecting an American redemption than ensuring freedom. The Great Society wanted to make America look like a country in which Little Rock could never have happened. It failed because it was a venture in denial rather than in realistic social transformation. And today’s “diversity” will fail because it, too, is only a denial–a kitsch that gives us an image of an America shorn of Little Rocks.

Fifty years ago, the face of the civil rights movement was innocent black school children who were trying to get an education. Today, it’s black teenagers who beat a white student unconscious and apparently were overcharged by a prosecutor.
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