The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America by Anders Walker

The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America BY Anders Walker. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 304 pages. $30.
The cover of The Burning House: Jim Crow and the Making of Modern America

In 1977, the school district of Kansas City, Missouri, sued the state of Missouri for supporting segregation. Kansas City students were largely black; suburban schools educated significantly whiter populations. The government’s districting policies, the suit alleged, produced de facto segregation. In 1985, the District Court ruled in Kansas City’s favor and ordered, among other things, the construction of magnet schools to attract white students. Ten years later, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling, insisting that Brown v. Board of Education applied only to laws mandating segregation. Assuming that a desire for integration implied that black populations impaired schools, Clarence Thomas wrote, in a concurring opinion, “It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior.”

This instance of the unlikely convergence of segregationist policies with a defense of black people provides the story at the heart of the legal scholar Anders Walker’s fascinating intellectual history of integration debates. The Burning House traces Clarence Thomas’s position back to intellectual exchanges between legal professionals like Justices Earl Warren and Lewis Powell and midcentury authors as disparate as Eudora Welty and James Baldwin, demonstrating how the legal history of integration intertwined with literary history. Most of the authors extolled the virtues of the African-American culture that arose under Jim Crow. Some, most notably Robert Penn Warren, argued that African-American art depended upon the separation from white Americans that Jim Crow provided as a means of extolling the virtues of segregation and arguing for its continuation. Others, including Ralph Ellison, praised African-American culture to question what form integration ought to take. If integration required assimilation into white America’s violent culture, they opposed it. But if integration entailed what civil rights activist James Farmer called “unity through diversity”—the peaceful coexistence of various peoples and their separate cultures—they welcomed it.

Walker praises this separatism as a legal and intellectual alternative to what he terms “the assimilationist vision” of Brown v. Board of Education. In so doing, he joins Quincy Mills’s 2013 history of black barbershops, and many other such histories, in arguing for the necessity of racially autonomous spaces for people of color’s safety and liberation. What differentiates Walker’s book is its chronicle of this debate’s transformation into legal precedents. In their opinions and rulings, Justices Lewis Powell and Clarence Thomas, among others, built into constitutional jurisprudence the value of (racial, gendered, and classed) difference. Although they frequently did so to defend educational inequalities, Walker argues that they and the authors he surveys created a worthwhile legacy: “the idea that a house divided might stand after all.”

Where lesser historians cover only views that advance their argument, Walker reports on this debate’s racist and antiracist interlocutors. Rather than read about life under Jim Crow, we read instead about defenses for segregation from white southern authors such as Flannery O’Connor. Walker’s most in-depth of these portraits depicts the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren’s attitudes toward segregation. “Naturally, Warren was prejudiced,” writes Walker of the young poet. “But his prejudice, oddly, made him a pluralist.” At the age of 25, Warren’s Jim Crow sympathies led him to claim that segregation provided an incubator for African-American cultural development. The blues and jazz, for instance, developed in the Jim Crow South. If segregation produced such diverse and valuable cultural forms, argued Warren, Jim Crow was not as bad as Northerners claimed.

While some white Southerners defended racist institutions by glorifying African-American culture, their liberal opponents advocated for integration by denigrating that culture. This strategy was most influential in Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, which sold over 100,000 copies. There, Myrdal and his contributors painstakingly chronicled the abuses of American racism. Those assaults so stymied African-American development, they claimed, that they made African-American culture a deficient imitation of white culture. The only solution, Myrdal argued, was assimilation and then integration.

Though ostensibly progressive in its unrelenting portrait of racism, Myrdal’s depiction of African-American culture divided black intellectuals. Richard Wright praised Myrdal for accurately capturing the humiliations that Southern racism required African Americans to endure in order to survive. Ralph Ellison, on the other hand, was fiercely critical. “Lynching and Hollywood, faddism and radio advertising are products of the ‘higher’ [white] culture,” wrote Ellison in his review of An American Dilemma. “Why, if my culture is pathological, must I exchange it for these?” Rather than assimilation, Ellison called instead for a measure of autonomy, going so far as to praise the segregated South for producing a “microscopic” yet still meaningful degree of freedom for black culture that had preserved African-American spirituals and folklore. By spurning assimilation, African-Americans would lead the nation forward in healing its “violent, racist, and spiritually bankrupt” past.

Yet the most significant antiracist legal achievement of the postwar era—Brown v. Board of Education’s overturning of segregation in 1954—did so in the name of Myrdal’s assimilationism. Chief Justice Earl Warren cited An American Dilemma in his opinion. Rather than let school segregation stymie African-American children’s and their culture’s development, the Supreme Court argued for integration as assimilation into the dominant culture of white America. This, too, incensed both African-American and white authors. “I regard the U.S. Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in the Orlando Sentinel after the verdict. She was echoed by James Baldwin, who wrote, in the 1962 essay “A Letter to my Nephew,” later republished in The Fire Next Time, “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you.”

These radical anti-assimilation positions provided white Southern intellectuals the foundation for defending Jim Crow. In Robert Penn Warren’s 1956 book Segregation: The Inner Conflict, he published interviews with several anti-integrationists, including an African American man who wanted “equality,” not to send his children to white schools. He also recorded an African American scholar who claimed that black Southerners wanted “human dignity.” By omitting advocates for compliance with Brown, Warren suggested African Americans wanted abstract achievements like dignity that the federal government could not offer. Instead, they ought to rely on cultivating good relationships with their neighbors, an inherently small government solution, and the influence of Southern moderates. Nearly ten years later, Warren slightly modified his position in his 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro?, arguing there that the federal government ought not mandate a uniform integration policy because African American’s held a variety of opinions on the matter. Of all the interviewed African Americans across the political spectrum, from King to Malcolm X, Warren most lauded Ellison. In his interview, Ellison insisted that African Americans had “achieved a very rich humanity” under the “restrictive conditions” of American racism. Integration, he feared, might destroy that culture through commercialization and assimilation. “The diversity of American life is often painful, frequently burdensome and always a source of conflict,” wrote Warren of Ellison’s views, “but in it lies our fate and our hope.”

This claim that preserving diversity ought to guide America’s future entered the courts through Lewis Powell. An advocate for small government solutions in law journals in the 1960s, Powell transformed a Warrenesque view of diversity into legal precedent when appointed to the Supreme Court in 1971. In the 1973 case San Antonio v. Rodriguez, Powell and the court ruled against the plaintiffs who claimed that tying school funding to local property taxes discriminated by wealth and so violated the equal protection clause. According to Powell, each school district’s ability to “tailor local programs to local needs,” including those created by unequal funds, could overcome wealth discrepancies. The alternative, “national control of education,” threatened to provide the federal government an outlet for propaganda. In the best case, this would homogenize America; in the worst case, it would turn the country totalitarian. Out of Cold War anxieties and Southern pride in local traditions, Powell argued for separate and unequal because it upheld diversity.

Powell’s valuing of diversity over equality motivated his rejection, in the 1978 case Regents v. Bakke, of the argument that affirmative action ought to repay the debt “whites owed blacks for slavery.” The plaintiff sued the University of California, Davis, arguing that quotas reserving positions for minorities discriminated against white candidates. Powell and the other conservatives ruled in Bakke’s favor. Rather than reserve some number of positions for minorities, Powell argued that school admissions offices could consider race “a relevant attribute of a student’s identity” akin to educational experience. (Much of our current legal support for affirmative action still depends upon the precedent set in this case.) In so doing, Powell transformed earlier defenses of Jim Crow by Warren and other white Southerners into constitutional jurisprudence, envisioning America not as a melting pot but as a series of small plates.

Regardless of these prejudiced roots, which are of course not the only roots, Walker argues against multicultural politics and claims that investing in identity-separated institutions, such as black businesses, ought to guide American race politics going forward. Supporting this claim, he cites Ta-Nehisi Coates’s praising of black colleges and the black viewpoint’s ability to insightfully critique America in Between the World and Me. He also refers to The Movement for Black Lives’s platform, which called not for integration but for investment in black businesses and other such institutions. Reparations in this form, Walker writes, would put African Americans “on the same economic plane, but not necessarily in the same classroom, as whites.”

Walker insightfully ties the benefits of these spaces to the unequal conditions that necessitate them. In doing so, he ventures into territory long populated by African-American intellectuals. W. E. B. Du Bois, for instance, described spirituals as deriving from slavery in Souls of Black Folk. In his 1947 introduction to An Appeal to the World!, he elaborated that African American “cultural gifts to America” were “born of slavery, of common suffering, prolonged proscription and curtailment of political and civil rights; and especially because of economic and social disabilities.” This intellectual strain has been revived today, particularly in the work of Fred Moten. “Exhaustive celebration of and in and through our suffering,” writes Moten in his most recent book, Black and Blur, “is black study”: black music, black literature, and black culture. The abuses of racism, from this perspective, are inextricable from and yet subordinate to black culture. The greatest contribution of Walker’s book is its charting of this intellectual tradition’s interrogation of Jim Crow, which is no less bound up in black culture than any other anti-black abuse.

Yet unlike Du Bois and Moten, Walker treats this violence as a premise rather than as a topic worth discussing. This is a shame because Moten’s recent book is most intellectually stimulating when he tries to account for anti-black violence, to describe its relationship to our culture, and to celebrate that culture without either downplaying or valorizing that violence. With no description of Jim Crow’s assaults, Walker’s book denies us the insight of the material conditions undergirding segregation, such as municipal school funding in the South being distributed through white local governments that gave African American schools very little money to purchase textbooks, maintain the premises, and pay teachers. As a result, his call to use these midcentury debates to guide our racial politics going forward cannot explain how we should create autonomous black spaces today. To this charge, Walker might reply that he is writing an intellectual and legal history, not a manual for organizing. This is true, but a history that argues that culture depends upon material conditions and racist institutions ought to venture to describe them.

Elias Rodriques is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. His writing has been published in n+1, The Nation, and other venues.