Since President Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black head of state in 2008, the United States has experienced a rise in anti-civil rights rhetoric and activism. When the United States Supreme Court struck down Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, the 5-4 majority opinion declared vestiges of Southern inequality eradicated and protective legislation no longer necessary. Many anti-civil rights activists seized the narrative that racial justice is no longer a legitimate social goal, and that efforts aimed at eliminating racial discrimination are actually anti-white measures that promote inequality.
The exploitation of racial justice narratives has deep historical roots. Just a generation after the Civil War, descendants of Confederate veterans initiated an intentional effort to promote a fictional history that recast the Confederate cause as a struggle for states’ rights rather than a fight to retain slavery. Similarly, in the 1950s and 1960s, Dixiecrats and others organized resistance to the civil rights movement; these anti-civil rights activists revived the Confederate flag at political conventions and protests and denounced federal civil rights legislation as a tyrannical violation of state’s rights.
Today, billboards and bumper stickers urge secession, refer to the sitting president using racial slurs, and define “antiracism” as an attack on white people. This campaign distorts the past and its legacy and avoids honest and necessary engagement with America’s history of racial injustice.