Reaction has two main meanings in English. One is to respond to some new situation (not specifying the nature of the reaction). The other is to resist some innovation. In this second sense, a reactionary is one who wants to go back to a previously existing condition of society. A reactionary is worse than a conservative. A conservative resists progressive change that benefits large numbers of people but does not help the rich. A reactionary wants to undo a progressive change already long since effected, taking achievements away from the people for the sake of the 1%.
We live in a reactionary age. Trump crony Newt Gingrich wants to undo the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt entirely, getting rid of social security and condemning large numbers of elderly Americans to penury. (In the 1930s the elderly were the poorest segment of society; that is no longer true today, and people can hope to retire and live with dignity, because of social security). We live in a moment where 8 billionaires are as rich as the poorer half of humankind and when the top 1% takes home 20% of the U.S. national income (up from 10% only a few decades ago). Ironically, it is in this moment, when workers and the middle classes are prostrate and the lion’s share of resources is going to 1.2 million households out of 124 million American households– it is at this very moment that reactionaries are demanding that ordinary people surrender their pensions and social security and health care for the sake of a further fat tax cut for the super-rich. The average wage of the average worker has been flat since 1970 in the U.S., as any increases in productivity or real economic growth appears to have been taken right to the top and the 1% by the Republican tax-cut conveyor belt. A loss of entitlements would actually reduce their incomes substantially, sending them back to the 1950s.
I saw the Wall Street Journal reporter Brett Stephens on Farid Zakaria’s GPS recently, opining that he goes around the country talking to small business owners, and they are complaining about excessive regulation and the injustices of the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act. Let me just say that I believe Mr. Stephens was using “small business” as a more sympathetic stand-in for his actual client, mega corporations. Sarbanes-Oxley made it illegal to destroy records to forestall a Federal investigation, in the wake of Enron and other scandals that robbed large number of employees of their pensions. Very inconvenient. Dodd-Frank is also no doubt very inconvenient for “small business.” Any let or hindrance on the super-rich whom Stephens and his like serve is of course a brake on economic progress. Except that Enron and the 2008 crash, which occurred in the absence of regulation were not in fact good for the economy or for workers and the middle class. Stephens may well get his way, and these regulatory reforms may well be deep-sixed in the Age of Trump. Many among the rich dream of getting back to the halcyon unregulated 1920s, managing to forget the plunge their predecessors took off the Empire State building in 1929. The very definition of reaction is a nostalgia for an age whose time has passed.
Reaction menaces us in the realm of civil rights as well as in that of the economy, where we have become a hereditary plutocracy. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It made it illegal for state officials to give literacy (or even Latin) tests only to African Americans as a prerequisite to register to vote. It ended racial discrimination in establishments that offered what was defined as a public accommodation. That is, white southerners like George Wallace insisted that a restaurant is a private business and so the owner should be welcome to discriminate in which customers he or she would serve. The Voting Rights Act begged to differ. If you’re serving the public, it said, you are in some ways a public institution and you may not operate in a racist manner. Some members of the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party still hold the George Wallace position on restaurants, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).
In this age of reaction, the achievements of the Voting Rights Act have been deeply eroded when they haven’t been entirely reversed. After three decades in which desegregated schools operated perfectly well throughout the country and came to be supported by many progressive southern Whites, from about 1990 the Federal courts began ceasing to require desegregation. The result? Apartheid schooling in the United States is again a reality. Given the high rates of racial segregation in neighborhoods, this reality, partly economic, has come to be reflected in the schools. We’ve seen large-scale resegregation. Call it Jim Crow by other means.
Ironically, all students benefit from being in racially mixed schools, including the white students. There are cognitive benefits; i.e. you learn to think more clearly in a more hybrid social situation.
Not only have the schools been resegregated but once the Roberts court removed oversight from the Deep South states, they immediately ran and put back in the Latin tests for African-Americans. This time though they cleverly did it more subtly by requiring identification papers in order to vote. If challenged, the white racists who passed these laws will say it is to prevent voter fraud. But there isn’t any voter fraud to speak of, at least from these quarters. Maybe the law should have been restricted to the Russian embassy. That supposed Libertarians who squawk at the idea of national identity cards should have suddenly decided we need identity cards to vote can only be explained by bigotry. John Roberts was snarky in asking whether court oversight was really any longer needed for the former Jim Crow states, asking if people in the New York-Boston corridor really were less racist nowadays. I don’t know, John. Why don’t you tell me? Here’s a map to help you decide. Notice where the white spaces are.
So we are back to de facto restrictions on the voting rights of African-Americans, which may have affected the election outcome in 2016. And we’re back to all-Black schools. The Republican Party is still dedicated to equality in one area, though. They’d love to make us all wage slaves with no unions, no rights (even to have a break), no minimum income, no health care and no social security. Indeed, there is a sense in which the 99% are all Black in the Age of Trump, whether they know it yet or not.
That is why we need the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., today more than ever.