Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America.
In Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America, George Derek Musgrove provides a compelling narrative history of black elected officials (BEOs) and the resistance they faced from white voters and the state in the aftermath of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The explosion of BEOs in local, state, and federal governments in the late 1960s and 1970s represented what Musgrove calls a "critical new layer of the black revolt" as African Americans sought to exercise Black Power in electoral politics. While conventional narratives point to failure on the part of BEOs to change the material conditions of African American citizens, the crises they faced in declining cities, and their struggles to appease competing agendas between black and white communities, Musgrove turns our attention to a significant, yet neglected dimension of BEO history-state repression.
Musgrove reminds us that a critical component of post-civil rights politics was the white backlash to the incorporation of African Americans into the US political sys tem. Black elected officials were not simply assimilationists who were coopted by the state; they were also targets of surveillance, harassment, and scrutiny by a matrix of adversarial actors including white voters, law enforcement, news media, and federal agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, military intelligence, and the IRS. Musgrove demonstrates how the "disproportionate scrutiny" that BEOs endured from 1966 to 1991 served as a pretext or prologue to the current political climate in which surveillance and scandal journalism are used to discredit and destroy political opponents. Building on the work of Benjamin Ginsberg and Martin Shetter, who argue that political rivals have resorted to a "politics by other means," Musgrove expands this theory by examining the foundational role race has played in shaping this new terrain of political warfare. For Musgrove, BEOs act as a "miner's canary," a term borrowed from Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres to describe the repression of African Americans as a "hypersensitive barometer of the toxicity of modern U.S. politics."
To interpret this period of white backlash, disproportionate scrutiny, and the campaigns black elected officials waged to defend themselves, Musgrove offers "harassment ideology" as an analytical framework that engages both legitimate claims of harassment and manipulations on the part of some black leaders to mask their misdeeds and corruption. Harassment ideology allows Musgrove to take a middle position between those who assert that the state devised a program of targeted racial oppression to "discredit black leaders" and those who claim such allegations are symptoms of racial paranoia. Although Musgrove attempts to avoid evaluating whether black elected officials were guilty of mismanagement or corruption, this study offers critical insights into the circumstances surrounding high-profile charges of harassment and how these clashes influenced black public opinion. Through the use of news media, trial transcripts, audits, and dozens of interviews with former and sitting BEOs and anti-harassment activists, Musgrove crafts a remarkable examination of the critical role BEOs played in shaping post-civil rights politics.
In Chapter 1, Musgrove unpacks the political struggles of Julian Bond and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., both of whom were denied their seats in 1966 due to pressure from whites. As the products of civil rights and Black Power activism, Bond and Powell fought for their right to serve and brought national attention to the repression of black political leadership. Either through Bond's framing of white resistance as the "second Reconstruction" or Powell's complaints of a racist double standard, these two cases, Musgrove argues, laid the foundation for understanding the harassment of black elected officials in subsequent decades. According to Musgrove, the white backlash to both Bond's and Powell's leadership emboldened conservatives in both political parties.
In Chapter 2, Musgrove interrogates the various layers of white resistance and state surveillance in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which subjected 76 percent of black congressmen and thousands of black elected officials on the local and state level to some form of counterintelligence or criminal investigation. His analysis reveals the central role President Richard Nixon's administration played in cultivating an environment of repression and surveillance to crush dissent. In fact, Musgrove reveals the many layers of law and order that called for the violent repression of dissident groups as well as the covert repression of BEOs. He argues that conservative attacks on black elected officials linked black leadership to criminality and the wastefulness of the liberal state--a strategy that contributed significantly to party realignment in the early 1970s.
Chapter 3 is the bedrock of Musgrove's study as he lays out the ideas, assumptions, strategies, and flaws that undergird harassment ideology. With special attention to Mary Sawyer's report on the harassment of black elected officials, which was the first of its kind, Musgrove argues that the failure to distinguish between actual harassment of BEOs and legitimate investigations of corruption undermined claims of repression. According to Musgrove, Sawyer's study entailed a predilection toward conspiracy theory, which helped to shape black public opinion. Musgrove pushes the reader to think beyond the collective memory of racial oppression and examine the evidence.
In Chapter 4, Musgrove turns our attention to the onslaught of investigations of BEOs that intensified under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He reminds us that the Department of Justice, deemed the "heart and mind of the Republican revolution" by journalists Thomas and Mary Edsall, investigated more politicians than in any period in history. Allegations of corrupt black leaders also came from white voters in majority black districts as well as white businessmen who resented the ways affirmative action curtailed a "good old boys network" that had denied minority access for generations. Musgrove suggests conservatives within the GOP used criminal investigations of Democratic leaders as weapons of political warfare to solidify party realignment and conservative ascendancy in national politics. The national attention given to corruption within the Democratic Party also provided a platform for black elected officials to defend themselves using harassment ideology. Musgrove's arguments are conflicted in this chapter, especially as they pertain to the role of racial animus in these widespread criminal investigations. Even though Musgrove demonstrates how the corruption crackdown during the Reagan and Bush years transformed into a racial and partisan political weapon, he downplays race as a driving factor behind the disproportionate scrutiny of black elected officials. On a number of occasions, Musgrove treats African Americans as unintended casualties in a war between Republicans and Democrats. His argument, despite evidence he presents to the contrary, considers disproportionate scrutiny as possibly a colorblind result stemming from African Americans' strong affiliation with the Democratic Party.
Chapter 5 explores the clashes between conservatives and black elected officials on the local level. Musgrove tells the story of how black Alabamans, fed up with white voter fraud, decided to "use the master's tools" by coordinating absentee ballot campaigns, a tactic long employed by whites. As a result of independent black activism, white state officials, with the backing of federal agencies, unleashed a program of repression and intimidation to protect white minority rule and discredit civil rights veterans. In effect, Musgrove argues that Alabama was an important battleground that Republicans exploited for their own benefit, creating a pretext for political warfare. Black politicians and activists in Alabama also devised successful defense strategies that would play a critical role in national anti-harassment efforts.
In Chapter 6, Musgrove examines antiharassment activism from 1987 to 1995 through the rise and fall of the Center for the Study of the Harassment of African Americans. He details a "black counterattack" to state surveillance and media scrutiny in which black elected officials strategized an anti-harassment campaign that culminated in the widespread defense of Judge Alcee Hastings of Florida and Washington, DC, mayor Marion Barry. Musgrove revisits the negative ramifications of conspiracy theory that he believes undergirded harassment ideology. For Musgrove, "damning evidence" of guilt only gave the impression that African Americans were "playing the race card" to protect corrupt black leaders. As such, the black counterattack undermined its own credibility, which Musgrove contends contributed to the skepticism of whites.
The contributions of Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics are many. First, Musgrove joins a legion of scholars who have debunked the myth of a colorblind or postracial America. Instead of framing civil rights reforms as the end of an era of racial hostility, Musgrove argues that these reforms energized conservative resistance to black political empowerment. Second, Musgrove broadens our understanding of the dimensions of white backlash as well as political incorporation. Black radical groups were indeed targets of state surveillance, but Musgrove shows that black elected officials were not immune to repression. His study convincingly argues that surveillance, harassment, and white backlash were critical components of political incorporation, an important intervention that counters the emphasis on the assimilation and cooptation of BEOs. Finally, Musgrove provides an important historical and political context for the current climate in which political warfare, politics by other means, and scandal journalism have become the norm in US politics. By drawing from the theory that African Americans serve as the nation's "miner's canary," he underscores Guinier and Torres's argument that "their distress is the first sign of danger that threatens us all."
Musgrove offers critical insights, yet the core of his argument rests on questionable suppositions. His conceptual framework is indeed helpful in understanding how black elected officials attempted to explain the political environment, yet his contention with harassment ideology presumes that an official must be innocent to be harassed. This premise, which justifies surveillance in cases where BEOs are guilty of unethical behavior or corruption, poses a fundamental problem for understanding and addressing the criminalization and surveillance of black and brown communities. If only complete innocence is worthy of support and advocacy, then it becomes difficult to wage resistance against mass incarceration, for instance, or state violence and racial profiling. For example, Musgrove dismisses the harassment claims made by C. Delores Tucker, Charles Diggs, Marion Barry, and Edward Brooke because of their presumed guilt. In Brooke's case, Musgrove also argues that the investigation was a part of broad surveillance in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. But how can we be certain that various political actors and agencies did not use the climate of anti-corruption to silence vocal black leadership, including Brooke, who had long battled conservatives within the Republican Party? Musgrove's claim that race had nothing to do with certain criminal investigations or the scrutiny of presumably guilty BEOs reinforces limited conceptions of race and racism.
Relatedly, Musgrove frames uncritical support for black leaders, particularly those who were guilty of misdeeds, as conspiracy theory. His conception of conspiracy is tenuous in that it minimizes the various ways that racism is understood in black public opinion. Musgrove does not make much room for black resistance to racial double standards and the belief that black politicians should not be severely punished for engaging in practices that their white counterparts commit with impunity. In addition, there is limited discussion of how African Americans incorporated institutional racism or structural racism into their conceptions of harassment. Conspiracy theory, according to Musgrove, hinges upon the assumption that a band of whites planned deliberate assaults on black leadership. His overuse of this concept elides the complexities embedded in black conceptualizations of racism, inequality, and power. At the core of Musgrove's contention with harassment ideology is his need to prove racist intent--a fundamentally flawed conception of racism. Having to prove racist intent is one of the most pernicious features of the new political terrain of the post-civil rights period.
Despite Musgrove's somewhat conflicted analysis, he has given us a cogent and fascinating framework for understanding the links between black electoral politics, white backlash, and party realignment. Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics also raises pertinent questions about the racial exclusions inherent in the practices of American democracy. It is a must-read for anyone interested in nuanced interpretations of post-civil rights politics.
La TaSha B. Levy received her PhD in African American studies from Northwestern University. $he is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia-Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. Her current research examines black Republican politics during the height and decline of the Black Freedom Movement.
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|Author:||Levy, La Tasha B.|
|Publication:||The Black Scholar|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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