Sunday, March 04, 2018

KKK: race and class formation in the 1920s

According to historian Linda Gordon, in The Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition, this iteration of the hooded knights made itself what I always urge on movement groups: throughout middle America, it was The Best Party in Town.

This Klan was national, anchored not in the South but in the middle, what we inaccurately call the "heartland." It was racist, xenophobic, aggressively Protestant Christian, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, patriarchal, bullying and boosterish -- a club for all that has always been small and mean in our society. Its millions of members and sympathizers were not so much the violent enforcers of white supremacy of the Reconstruction era (at least only infrequently, little as that relative restraint mattered to the few victims tarred and feathered). It was something all too recognizable today: a force aiming to organize politicians and community leaders around its fears and prejudices while venting an unmoored sense of victimization. Numerous elected officials were members, whether from conviction or expedience; the Klan claimed 16 US senators and 75 Congressmen. No U.S. president from Wilson to Hoover breathed a word against the Klan. And like so much of rightwing activity, it was also a profit making scam; its founders incorporated the Klan as a business and grew rich off mass recruitment into their pyramid marketing scheme.

But for its adherents, the Klan offered great fun: family picnics, pseudo-religious rituals, parades, cross burnings, and mass rallies.

Most of Gordon's book is devoted to showing how this Klan both aped and created the culture of white mainstream middle America in those years. Outside the big cities and even there, this seems from our vantage point a narrow world. Until radio and motion pictures nationalized consumer culture, local political orators and local preachers, revival meetings and processions, could assemble followings whose theatrics dominated large communities.

Gordon describes the Klan as representing a moment when both racial and class definitions were in flux.

The category "white" changed over time, especially in the period between the mass migration starting in the 1880s and the 1920s. In the Northeast, for example, the Irish, Italian and eastern European Jewish immigrants were not typically considered white by earlier immigrants; by the 1920s, these newer immigrants had become white. (The Klan could be seen as an oppositional reaction to this expansion of whiteness, by its efforts to limit "right" citizenship to a narrower group.)

... The Klan had a few rich members, but on the whole the rich had little to gain from membership. The very poor could not afford it. "Middling" people by contrast often had much to gain. ... The connections made through Klaverns could lead to jobs, customers, investment opportunities. ... In many areas Klan membership bought prestige ... Klansmen were often ambitious, and not only economically. In bringing community status, Klan membership could not only advantage those on the way up, but also offer compensatory status to those stuck in one level or even on the way down.

... the Klan helped redefine "middle class" so as to bring in men who did manual labor. Its emphasis on patriotism, religious affiliation, temperance, and sexual morality make membership a marker of respectability, and thus helped some working-class members become middle-class. ... (Precisely because respectability was fundamental to building the Klan, when it was ruptured by scandals the Klan went into free fall.)

... anger at displacement, blamed on "aliens," sometimes rested on actual experience but more often on imagination and fear stoked by demagoguery. We know this because the Klan flourished in locations with few "aliens" ...

... reclassifying working-class people as middle class, the Klan contributed to shaping that new, broader class identity...[it claimed] that its "100% Americans" transcended class ...

... The membership evidence demonstrates at the very least that white industrial workers, even those loyal to their unions, had no immunity from bigotry. That blue-collar workers were a minority in the Klan cannot be taken as a sign that their class consciousness make them critical of it. Those workers hostile to the Klan many have been motivated more by ethnic and/or religious identities than by class consciousness, and those who joined may have bene motivated by a bandwagon effect or a desire to hobnob with social superiors. It bears repeating, also, that the cost of Klan membership may have kept out many workers. ...

This reader is tempted to reflect: "it was ever thus." And yet my own reaction to the book makes me uncomfortable. I try not to read history so completely through the lens of my own location in place and time that I forget that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley) Gordon's investigation of the culture of the Klan -- and of the culture the Klan made -- are the guts of this book and will, I think, be its lasting contribution. History is instructive, but does not neatly repeat. This is best read for the cultural history; current politics requires a current focus.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Oregon has a sad racist history. The high school my kids attended was the dragons and I don't believe it was for the mythical beasties. Laws on the books that denied blacks the right to buy property weren't undone until the early 1900s. People always make a big deal about the evil in the South but racism was different in the north but still bad. I thought it was better but now don't know what to think. Are more blacks in prisons because they are being prejudiced against or because they commit more crime? Do the white boys still get away with what might get a black boy killed? It's always hard to know because statistics don't tell the whole story.

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