- The End of Reconstruction, Again:Dylann Roof, Thomas Dixon Jr., and the Transhistorical Structures of Racist Feeling
On the night of Barack Obama's election to the presidency, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed an understandable hopefulness about the future of race relations. "Breaking with our racial past," he predicted, would be the "least" of our problems. Friedman closed his column with words that bridged the troubled past and the hopeful future. "The Civil War is over," he wrote. "Let reconstruction begin."1 Yet by invoking the Civil War and Reconstruction, [End Page 174] Friedman identified a more complicated history than he may have intended. Reconstruction had been a political experiment, conducted between 1865 and 1877, in which the Congress of the United States attempted to enforce legal and civic equality across race in the former Confederate states. For a brief moment, it seemed to work. By 1887, for instance, seventeen African Americans had been elected or appointed to Congress.2 But according to observers as diverse as William Dunning and W. E. B. Du Bois, the experiment failed.3 Thousands were lynched as multi-racial city, county, and state governments were overthrown in white supremacist coups d'état.4 The United States would witness a century of de jure racial apartheid, followed by the lingering de facto segregation of today. Like the civil rights era (1948–1970), Reconstruction constituted what Michael Omi and Howard Winant have called a "great [moment] of … mainstream political upsurge." Backlash followed both periods.5
We are witnessing a similar backlash today: an energized racism overlapping with and subsequent to the administration of the first black president and the renewal of emancipatory movements for justice. The emergence of white supremacist militias in city centers has forced all but the most craven to acknowledge that racism is resurgent in US political life. To push Friedman's metaphor just a bit further: If Obama's election ushered in a "reconstruction," then we in the aftermath of the Obama administration should be extraordinarily cautious about what came after the first Reconstruction: Plessy v. Ferguson, the Wilmington political coup, and Jim Crow.
I raise the specter of Reconstruction's long aftermath not to conflate its historical particularity with that of the present but rather to suggest that historical parallels might enable us to think about the structural operations of racism. We need to understand, I think, not simply how US society enables racial despotism but how the experience of that despotism by its ostensible beneficiaries enables its reinvigoration. We need a scholarship not simply of race but of racism. Such a scholarship might begin, I think, by reading newly resurgent racisms as structures of feeling. As formulated by Raymond Williams half a century ago, structures of feeling offer an analytic for explaining messy, even incoherent, systems of belief. As lived and expressed, such structures appear more often as "a latency" across and between formal ideologies.6 Williams explains: "The new generation responds in its own ways to the unique world it is inheriting, taking up many continuities, that can be traced, … yet feeling its whole life in certain ways differently, and shaping its [End Page 175] creative response into a new structure of feeling."7 While social, legal, and political structures might pass from generation to generation relatively intact, structures of feeling, partly articulated and even internally contradictory, are invented anew. I suggest that understanding racism as such a structure would enable us to confront its four primary vectors—racial terrorism, state violence, reactionary politics, and exclusionary laws—not as a coherent project to be contested ideologically but a cluster of latent, even contradictory, potentials.
We might begin exploring such structures of racist feeling in Shelby, North Carolina. Dylann Roof, who would be convicted of murdering nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, was arrested in Shelby. When Roof was captured in June 2015, a news report described his appearance in the small community as "unlikely."8 Perhaps it was. But the town, like the AME Church of Charleston itself, offers kinetic depth to an observer with a sense of history. Shelby was also the childhood home of the...