clock menu more-arrow no yes

The racist panic over Ruby Bridges is not just history — it’s our political present

The Betsy DeVos cartoon saga was an unintentional reminder of the staying power of white nationalism.

Glenn McCoy; Mark Wilson/Getty Images/Normal Rockwell

Political cartoonist Glenn McCoy is just the latest person to compare those who blocked President Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, from entering a public school last week to those who aimed to stop 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from becoming the first black child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960.

Trump’s defenders would be wise to stop this. While attempting to paint DeVos in a sympathetic light, as a brave pioneer, they’re also unintentionally highlighting the deep racism that fueled the protests against Bridges. And to anyone following conservative politics today, that racism feels frighteningly familiar, and the comparison is deeply unflattering.

Over the past few days, conservatives have had a heyday comparing the protesters who blocked DeVos from entering a Washington, DC, school to the mobs that antagonized and threatened Bridges in 1960. McCoy’s cartoon of DeVos is meant to evoke the famous Norman Rockwell painting that depicts US Marshals escorting Bridges into the school.

Norman Rockwell

Six years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ordered the nation’s schools to integrate, New Orleans’s school board finally put in place a plan to do so. Thousands of white segregationists rioted in protest of the racial integration of New Orleans schools and pulled their children out of class rather than have them learn side by side with black kids.

As the Civil Rights Digital Library explains, “The integration of New Orleans' public schools drew national criticism from those who condemned segregationists for their hostile reactions and prompted acclaimed American painter, Norman Rockwell, to paint ‘The Problem We All Live With,’ which depicted four federal marshals escorting six-year-old Ruby Bridges to school on her first day at William Frantz.”

The story of DeVos being heckled by a handful of protesters as she tried to enter a middle school can’t quite compare. As German Lopez has explained, that was a peaceful, politically motivated demonstration against a single government official — the kind of person whom the public is supposed to hold accountable — who couldn’t answer basic education policy questions at Senate hearings.

Lopez and many others, like historian Kevin M. Kruse, have contrasted the two events to make the case that equating them is absurd on a number of levels. Still, the “standing in the schoolhouse door” comparison remained a popular talking point among conservatives.

But Trump supporters would be wise to leave Bridges in the past, and not just because the comparisons to DeVos are inaccurate and offensive.

It’s because the irrational and hateful attitudes that fueled the backlash against the 6-year-old girl have some undeniable parallels to the ones that shaped the recent election and are animating national policy today. The racial anxiety and belief in white supremacy that led white Americans to riot over school integration should feel familiar: These same forces fueled Trump’s win and thus, indirectly, DeVos’s appointment.

Beyond being inaccurate, the Bridges comparison highlights the horrors of white Americans’ panic over diversity

Donald Trump’s campaign tapped into racism, racial anxiety, and outright hate — the same kind that made white parents in the 1960s horrified at the idea of school integration — to fuel his success.

As Dylan Matthews wrote for Vox in October, it was popular to argue that Trump voters’ main concerns were about the economy. But that didn’t reflect what Trump voters were saying about themselves, and the data didn’t back it up. In a feature on the racist and anti-immigrant sentiments that fueled support for Trump in the same way they fueled the Brexit decision, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote in November:

Michael Tesler, a professor at the University of California Irvine, took a look at racial resentment scores among Republican primary voters in the past three GOP primaries. In 2008 and 2012, Tesler found, Republican voters who scored higher were less likely to vote for the eventual winner. The more racial bias you harbored, the less likely you were to vote for Mitt Romney or John McCain.

With Trump, the opposite was the case. The more a person saw black people as lazy and undeserving, the more likely they were to vote for the self-proclaimed billionaire.

Tesler found similar effects on measures of anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim prejudice. This shows that Trump isn’t drawing support from the same type of Republicans who were previously picking the party’s winners. He’s mobilizing a new Republican coalition, one dominated by the voters whose political attitudes are driven by prejudice.

"The party’s growing conservatism on matters of race and ethnicity provided fertile ground for Trump’s racial and ethnic appeals to resonate in the primaries," Tesler wrote in the Washington Post in August. "So much so, in fact, that Donald Trump is the first Republican in modern times to win the party’s presidential nomination on anti-minority sentiments."

Multiple other studies have supported Tesler’s findings. An April Pew survey looked at whether Republicans had "warm" or "cold" feelings toward Trump and how they felt about the census projection that the US would be majority nonwhite in 30 years.

It found that 33 percent of Republicans thought this shift would be "bad for the country." These people were also overwhelmingly likely to feel warmly rather than coolly about Trump, by a 63-to-26 margin.

Meanwhile, as Matthews reported, there was no evidence to support the idea that Trump voters were disproportionately poor, and in fact, a major study from Gallup's Jonathan Rothwell showed the opposite: Trump support was correlated with higher, not lower, income, both among the population as a whole and among white people.

If anything, Trump’s win was powered by a not-so-subtle message that these people’s racial resentment was that of the potential president’s too. And all voters had to do to know this was take a look at his track record.

Decades have passed since Bridge’s first day at William Frantz Elementary School. Still, it’s hard to separate the 1960 idea that black children didn’t belong in schools with white children from the 2016 belief of Trump voters that increasing diversity would be “bad for the country.”

It’s hard to say the mobs that protested Bridges had a different worldview from the one Trump expressed when federal officials found evidence that he had refused to rent to black tenants and lied to black applicants about whether apartments were available.

It’s hard to separate the white mob’s core belief that white children and black children belonged in different places from the stance attributed to Trump in a 1991 book by John O’Donnell, a former president of Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. In it, he quoted Trump’s criticism of a black accountant: "Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control."

Those who bring up Bridges to try to put the peaceful protest against DeVos in a bad light inadvertently bring to mind these unavoidable comparisons, which don’t reflect very well on the administration they aim to defend.

The “racial antagonism” Obama triggered was a lot like the kind 6-year-old Bridges inspired

A December 8 CNN special included rare, candid moments in which Barack Obama and his former adviser David Axelrod each acknowledged that racism contributed to negative attitudes toward the first black president.

"I think there's a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states," Obama told Fareed Zakaria in an interview for “The Legacy of Barack Obama.” "Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other? Are those who champion the 'birther' movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely."

This public admission was a first from the president. Axelrod was even more direct, saying, "It's indisputable that there was a ferocity to the opposition and a lack of respect to him that was a function of race.”

They’re not the only ones who believe that.

What Obama and Axelrod said relates directly to an idea that Cornell Belcher, who served on the polling team for both of Obama’s presidential campaigns, lays out in detail in his book A Black Man in the White House. In it, he makes the case that Obama’s election triggered what he’s dubbed “America's racial aversion crisis”: a panicked emotional response on the part of white Americans to an African-American president, which transformed into a powerful force in politics.

Belcher uses numbers to support that claim. The book was inspired by a survey of voters between the 2008 general election and Obama’s reelection in 2012, tracking levels of “racial antagonism” — a term that basically means racism — along with political opinions.

His conclusion, as he wrote in his book: “The changing cultural and racial demographics of the country had, indeed, finally allowed the nation to overcome a monumental electoral political barrier, but they did not ‘exorcize the racial ghost.’” That “racial ghost,” he writes, worked to “delegitimize the black man in the White House and stop him from effectively governing.”

Belcher explained to Vox in a December interview:

During the course of his presidency, not only did racial aversion not lessen but it increased greatly. In particular, it found a fertile and comfortable place to land on the Republican side, and it spiked tremendously. And going into the midterm election and particularly during the primary season, it created almost a perfect storm for a racial antagonist to reboot the “Southern strategy” — and for Donald Trump to really ride and expand that niche and take the Republican nomination.

Tesler, of UC Irvine, has made a similar case: that the mere existence of a black president prompted white voters to lash back by voting for Trump, party affiliation notwithstanding:

My book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial: [Race and politics in the Age of Obama], shows that Obama's presidency rapidly accelerated the pre-existing relationship between party identification and racial attitudes. Moreover, he activated a previously non-existent partisan divide according to attitudes about Muslims — one that contributes to partisan sorting even after controlling for racial attitudes. The book further shows that most of this growing polarization of party identification was driven by non-college educated whites. Prior to Obama's presidency, racial attitudes were only weakly related to party identification among non-college whites, but that correlation shot through the roof during Obama's presidency.

Again, conservatives should be careful about using the irrational, racist backlash to the presence of a little black girl to make a point, when the pathology that inspired that backlash is arguably exactly what got Trump elected just last year.

The idea that America is for white people — the very view that drove the protests against Bridges — is shaping policy from the White House

The beliefs of those rabid Ruby Bridges protesters — that white people are most important in America and that racial diversity threatens them — did not disappear after the civil rights movement. Quite the opposite: They were an animating force in Trump’s election in a way that turned out to be more than campaign trail talk. Those ideas have informed his administration’s early policies and Cabinet appointments of men who have promoted or espoused contempt for immigrants and members of racial and religious minority groups.

Reflecting on this, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has made the case that “government by white nationalism is upon us”:

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, his former aide Stephen Miller, and right-wing media mogul Stephen Bannon occupy prominent positions in the present administration. Like Anton, they hold deep antagonism to immigrants and immigration, opposition to their equality within American society, and nostalgia for a time when prosperity was the province of the native-born and a select few “assimilated” immigrants. But these aren’t just ideologues with jobs in a friendly administration. They are the architects of Trump’s policy, the executors of a frighteningly coherent political ideology. ...

These weren’t the only executive orders from the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, but they were the most visible — the most controversial. They fulfill key promises of the Trump campaign: a wall, a Muslim ban, and a general crackdown on immigrants and immigration. In keeping with the white-nationalist ideas of that campaign and of the president’s brain trust, they target the stated threats to white hegemony. And they advance the white-nationalist narrative: that America will be made “great again” by preserving the integrity of white America.

It’s not just critics who’ve said this: White nationalists and white supremacists themselves, who reported they were energized by Trump’s campaign, and whose hate groups have been reinvigorated since the election, got the message loud and clear that Trump was on their side.

As the debate around the cartoon settles, it’s hard to make the case that DeVos actually has anything at all in common with Bridges. And few can argue with a straight face that people who protested the new education secretary actually have anything in common with those who rioted over the 6-year-old girl’s presence in an elementary school. But by comparing the two events, conservatives have done worse than make a major, indefensible stretch. They’ve drawn Americans’ attention to the racist attitudes that fueled the attacks against Bridges — attitudes that have uncanny and disturbing similarities to the ones shaping our country today.