On September 14, 1998, a headline from an internet site announced that George Wallace, the former Alabama governor, died the day before. This was a significant piece of news given Wallace’s notoriety during the 1960s and ‘70s. I shared this information with a colleague sitting nearby. His reaction was a look of disgust. Then he said that he was glad “that guy” was gone. His reaction stuck with me through the years, particularly because it was so different from mine; I simply felt someone famous had died. I found the difference in our reactions to this bit of news was striking. Part of it, no doubt, was generational. He was born in the second half of the 1940s. His childhood and adolescence spanned the much of the Civil Rights Movement. He saw on television Wallace utter the infamous words “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his January 1963 inaugural address. I, on the other hand, was born in the second half of the 1960s. By the time I learned of George Wallace, he was no longer promoting segregation. The country had changed. The South had changed. For me, George Wallace, who arguably was the 1960s face of segregation and Southern resistance to civil rights, was a person of history. For my colleague, he was a person of memory.
The difference in our reactions, I believe, went beyond the generational. By the early 1980s, Wallace formally renounced his past position on segregation. In his final election for governor in 1982, Wallace won 90 percent of the black vote. Even Jesse Jackson, the most prominent black political figure in the 1980s, came to embrace Wallace. It would seem that much of the country, including black Americans, had moved on from the 1960s image of Wallace. My colleague, however, had not.
Over the years, it occurred to me that there was another reason for his harsh reaction. That reason is something author Shelby Steele has pointed out in his writings. I believe that other reason was the feeling of stigma. One key outcome of the Civil Rights Movement was federal legislation that made it unlawful for state governments and owners of public accommodations to treat residents differently on account of race. The country effectively admitted that racism was an evil and wanted to take steps to remove it from our institutions. However, the other side of that outcome was that it made white Americans a stigmatized group.
White Americans today find themselves having to prove that they are not racists. This has led many to support questionable policies, such as forced busing in school assignments, affirmative action in higher education, voting districts that pack as many blacks as possible to guarantee the election of a black legislator, diversity programs in corporate America, and so on.
It also has led many to support policies that are unrelated to the historical oppression of blacks, such as supporting voting districts for Hispanics, supporting unrestricted immigration from Spanish speaking countries, and even supporting same-sex marriage. Though these policies cannot be justified as a kind of reparations for the historical treatment of black Americans, not supporting them could be seen as discrimination similar to what black Americans faced years past.
The stigma has led to the creation of “politically correct” speech on matters racial and non-racial. One feels compelled to say African American rather than black; Native American rather than American Indian; undocumented immigrant rather than illegal alien; he or she rather than he. We see effusive affection toward the nation’s first black president. This affection goes beyond the borders of the United States: the president received the Nobel Peace Prize months after his first inauguration. Even the Europeans feel a need to distance themselves from this stigma.
Supporting race-based policies, adopting new language and a general overhaul of etiquette is a lot of work. There is no doubt that some feel that the effort is worthwhile but it is work nonetheless. I believe that many Americans, particularly those who lived through the Civil Rights Movement, see George Wallace as a symbol of the reason for this work. Wallace in the minds of many is the very visible general in the last battle of a war for segregation during a time when the nation was changing its mind on the issue.
Enter Donald Trump.
What does George Wallace have to do with Donald Trump?
Donald Trump is not in favor of segregation. He is not in favor of any policies that would injure black Americans. For all the talk from some quarters that Donald Trump is a racist, the evidence to support that charge is quite flimsy.
After Trump rode down the escalator in June 2015, he, in his announcement that he would be a candidate for Republican nomination for president of the United States, stated among other things that of the Mexicans who are here unlawfully, some were bringing drugs and that some were rapists. Since then he has also called for a temporary ban of Muslims immigration. He has refused to denounce David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan after Duke endorsed him. Several years ago, he said that the president should release his college grades and demanded to see the president’s birth certificate.
All of these things fly in the face of the etiquette demands of political correctness. All of these things may inspire others to use impolite language in expressing frustrations on political matters. All of these things make it more difficult to prove a negative: that white Americans are not incurably racist.
His un-politically correct speech has no doubt contributed to Trump’s widespread support. Many Americans have felt straitjacketed in recent years in expressing certain “politically incorrect” thoughts and are happy and relieved to see a public figure express those same thoughts in ways they feel they cannot. To other Americans, however, many of whom are Republicans, Trump is an American nightmare. He has brought back the stigma that many have worked so hard over the past few decades to contain. Should Trump win the presidency, he and his rhetorical style will not only be validated but will perhaps permanently undo their hard work.