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In 2017, I presented a paper at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) titled, “Ringing the Bell, Sounding the Horne: Brown, Bad Faith, and Cold War Convergence". In it, I offered a preliminary examination of the effects of the Cold War context on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision through the work of Critical Race Theorist Derick Bell and radical Historian Gerald Horne. I articulated their work to my own theorization of how antiradicalism, and its entanglements with antiblackness, shaped the form and function of integration and how this Cold War imperative was mired in Bad Faith. Find a lightly edit version of the paper below.

Ringing the Bell, Sounding the Horne: Brown, Bad Faith, and Cold War Convergence

The current state of public education, especially its increasingly punitive and neglectful orientation toward Black students, provides an interesting context for revisiting the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. I do so to question whether Brown may have done more for the ability of the United States to fight communism abroad and “subversion” at home, than it did to improve the life chances of Black children. That better schooling for Black children was not the primary concern is manifested in the approaches set forth to “desegregate” schools: balancing the race ratios among students and teachers, eliminating one-race schools, redrawing attendance lines, and busing to achieve racial balance. Such approaches did not address curriculum, pedagogy, the elimination of Black faculty and administrators, and discrimination against Black students and resegregation within integrated schools—including the exorbitant rate of Black students’ suspension and expulsion. To be clear, such assessment is in no way meant to disregard or discredit the struggle of the NAACP and other Civil Rights organizations to end segregation.

Anticommunism—a technology of regulation and discipline especially targeting the left, Black militancy, and the mobilization of labor—directly impacted how Blackness could be incorporated into the narrative of the nation after WWII. The situation was especially precarious given the reality that participation in the war had heightened the sense of connection and common history among Africans throughout the diaspora because, as an international conflict, it provided opportunities for mutual contact. As James L. Roark explains, “black men in America experienced a heightened sense of race consciousness and felt a surge of racial kinship with other colored peoples. As the war shattered the myths of white invincibility and white superiority, American negroes and other colored peoples acquired a new feeling of racial self-confidence and solidarity.”[i]

Anticommunism became deployed as a technology for policing assertions of freedom, demands for economic justice, and critiques of the materialities of the Black condition globally that challenged American statist practice. It prompted a move in Black political and intellectual thought toward Cold War liberal antiracism rooted in a class-based citizenship project that eschewed leftist and structural analysis in the face of the deployment of anticommunism, instead deploying behavioral, psychological, moralistic, and cultural arguments as the basis of their claims to equality.

When the Brown decision was handed down, the Second Red Scare had reached its zenith; the Communist Control Act was passed mere months after the Brown decision, in August 1954. Significantly, the highest court in the land had ruled segregation inherently unequal in the midst of the notorious Army-McCarthy hearings that took place from April to June of 1954. The nation was captivated by this televised spectacle, which centered on whether the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy had abused his power in his investigation of the Army’s supposedly soft stance on communism. While McCarthy claimed that communists had made significant incursions into this branch of the armed forces, the army accused him and Senator Roy Cohn of using their authority to help G. David Schine avoid the draft. The homosexual undertones of the hearings are especially ironic, given the implementation of President Eisenhower’s executive order 10450 in 1953—an expansion of Truman’s 1947 executive order 9835, also known as the “Loyalty Order”—that expelled from the government and public positions not only communists, but also homosexuals and other “undesirables.”

Brown also came at a time of increased concern about the spread of communism, not least in the global South, given the recent end of the Korean War, Mao Zedong’s rise to chairmanship of the Communist Party of China on September 27, 1954, and the founding of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (September 8, 1954).

As early as 1950, anticommunism as a technology of repression was used with considerable force in the public education system, as evidenced in New York’s Feinberg Law (upheld by the Supreme Court in 1952) which banned from the teaching profession anyone who called for the overthrow of the government—specifically communists; and California’s Levering Act, which required professors at the University of California, among others, to take a loyalty oath that disavowed radical beliefs. Laws like these were adopted in at least thirty-nine states.

Thus, in many ways, Brown was meant to quell domestic forms of agitation that not only highlighted U.S. antiblackness on the world stage, but also created the conditions for communism to gain some appeal in oppressed communities. Black mobilization and organization for racial equality was construed as unpatriotic precisely because it undermined the ability of the U.S. to narrate itself as the bastion of progress vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Insofar as school segregation in particular became a target in the United Nations and in the foreign press, Brown became a means of defending both the reputation and the national security of the United States. (One aspect of the national security argument was that foreign powers could use internal strife in the United States to strengthen their own military and political power and to weaken that of the United States.)

Moreover, desegregation allowed the United States to feign moral authority and to couch its numerous international military escapades in the discourse of democracy and freedom. The following quote by Harry Truman is a case in point:

“If we wish to inspire the people of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy, if we wish to restore hope to those who have already lost their civil liberties, if we wish to fulfill the promise that is ours, we must correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy.”

The primary concern was not justice for Blacks or the amelioration of the material, social, and political effects of decades of inequality and second-class citizenship; rather, it was how to best position the United States as the new leader and hegemon of the so-called free world. As Derrick Bell writes, “Blacks obtain relief even for acknowledged racial injustice only when that relief also serves, directly or indirectly, to further ends which policymakers perceive are in the best interests of the country.” (56) Mary Dudziak concurs: “…the consensus against [segregation] in the 1950s was the result of a convergence of interests on the part of whites and blacks, and white interests in abandoning segregation were in part a response to foreign policy concerns and an effort to suppress the potential of black radicalism at home… without a convergence of white and black interests in this manner, Brown would never have occurred.”[i]

Interest convergence” is the idea that “the interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interest of whites,” and that the harm imposed upon Blacks and the liability of whites for such harm are subordinated to the ability of any remedy to enhance or secure the interests of the dominant class. One way of framing interest convergence is through the idea of “institutional bad faith,” which, “…emerges from the tendency to uncritically accept a social order as given, namely, as natural and as beyond intersubjective and cooperative transformation… [It] is a failure of responsibility and constitutes an ethical decomposition of sociality… It is the solvable presented as unsolvable and the dissolvable presented as undissolvable.’”[ii] Cold War liberalism fitted the Brown decision to the antiradical sociality of the United States, which was meant to mollify the most egregious forms of white supremacist repression without fundamentally restructuring political, economic, and social relations that would make integration a viable and beneficial project for Black folk. In this way, Brown “signifie[d] the web of beliefs and artifices that constitute[d] the general spirit of seriousness” and “infected the realm of the social by congealing human reality with a prevailing, institutional condition of unfreedom, of self-denial and discouragement of freedom.”[iii]

The People’s Historian Gerald Horne’s voluminous work, specifically what Erik McDuffie has dubbed the “Horne Thesis,” provides a framework to understand the previous discussion. Horne’s position on the conjuncture of anticommunism and the rollback of Jim Crow pivots around three major contentions. The first is that white supremacy and anticommunism were the major forces shaping post-WWII life and politics in the United States, and this greatly impacted African-descendants.[i] Domestically, white racists used redbaiting as a means of contesting even the most basic claims to civil rights and dignity by, for instance, characterizing integration as a Communist plot for equality between all races.[ii] The U.S. state likewise mobilized anticommunism as a technology of white supremacy and antiblackness to discredit militant redistributive claims made by Black radicals. 

In his article “Who Lost the Cold War?” Horne argues that McCarthyism disproportionately victimized Blacks because demands for the substantive improvement of their material conditions were cast as Soviet-backed subversion.[iii] In this way, white supremacist logics came to be sutured onto anticommunism to defend capitalist property and privilege. In the process, Black freedom struggles came to be seen as a threat to national security.[iv] The red tagging of Negro protest by the U.S. Justice Department was meant to keep Black Americans on the narrow path of liberal Civil Rights.[v] This “close identification between anti-Black and anti-red”[vi] led to the abandonment of protest against political economic oppression to focus on the acquisition of bourgeois rights and recognition through juridical equality. This created the conditions for the Brown decision to be argued out in abstract and moralistic terms that hinged on the psychological impact of segregation on Black children. Kenneth Clark’s doll test is a case in point.

Kenneth B. Clarke and his wife Mamie were convinced that the primary injury of segregation was the impact it had on the Black child’s self-esteem and perception of self. The two social scientists used a number of tests to get at the relationship between color and self-worth, including what came to be known as the doll test. It’s description is worth quoting at length:

Then finally we came to the dolls test in the same situation. And the questions were very simple, you know, "Show me a white doll." We had two white dolls and two brown dolls. "Show me the doll that's a white doll. Show me the doll that's a brown doll." We had a series of about three or four questions that were concerned with knowledge of the difference, and we had questions that were concerned with preference, "Show me the doll that you like to play with. Show me the doll that's a nice doll. Show we the doll that's a bad doll." And after we asked these preference questions in which a majority of these children disturbingly rejected the black or brown doll, and described positive characteristics to the white doll—not all, but the majority did. Then the most disturbing question, and one that really made me, even as a scientist, upset, was we then asked as the final question, "Now show me the doll that's most like you." And it was disturbing because many of the children were emotionally upset at having to identify with the doll that they had rejected. Some of them would walk out the room or refuse to answer that question. And this we interpreted as indicating that color, in a racist society, was a very disturbing and traumatic component of an individual's sense of his own self-esteem and worth.

Clark felt that the best way to show violation of equal protection under the fourteenth amendment was to show its effect on “racial mental hygiene” by underscoring how segregation produced damaged Black children. This use of psychology to argue against segregation was part of Cold War ideology that “encouraged the translation of political and social problems into individual, personal ones, and emphasized coping and adjusting, rather than social and political transformation.” Such approach “undermined the potential for political activism and reinforced the chilling effects of anticommunism and cold war consensus.” Moreover, it served the interest of the cold war state by encouraging adjustment and accommodation as opposed to activism linked to structural and material change. Relatedly, it linked political dissent to psychological distress such that leftist forms of activism came to be understood as mental illness and instability. The doll test help to reinstantiate racism as quaint customs, values, and practices that could be set aside without real structural change.

Horne’s second contention is that Jim Crow and legal segregation posed a threat to Washington’s campaign to bring the emerging “Third World” into the liberal democratic nexus; thus, ending racism was pursued by the Cold War state as a tactic for combating communism.[i] The Brown decision became particularly important in this regard. 

Mary Dudziak contends that, “During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period of substantial progress in the area of minority rights by the Court, Cold War ideology informed the broader discourse on civil rights in important and powerful ways.”[ii] U.S. Embassy officials were concerned about the way in which domestic race discrimination would fuel propaganda about the U.S. race problem and encourage anti-American and pro-communist leanings of other nations—especially those of the decolonizing world.[iii] The “Cold War imperative,” was to make U.S. racial policy conform with the image of democracy and justice that it wanted to present to the (decolonizing) world.[iv] This “image” was rooted in bourgeois rights and freedom that were foundational to the regime of labor abstraction.

The importance to U.S. foreign policy of enacting legislation against Jim Crow was manifested in the briefs for important anti-segregation cases, including Henderson v. United States and Shelley v. Kraemer. In these, statements from the United Nations (UN) and the Soviet Union were referenced to underscore the belief that the practices and policies of segregation were having a negative effect on the U.S. fight against international communism.[v] 

In the liberal imaginary, the argument for anticolonialism rested on the claim that colonial abuses created the conditions for the spread of communism. This position made a case for anticolonialism that rejected radicalism and propped up Cold War liberalism both at home and abroad. The construction of communism as the primary enemy in the Third World turned anticolonialism and antiracism into tools of wealth accumulation and to the expansion of capital. As such, the passing of legislation to end (overt) discrimination in the United States (symbolic change, not the actual enforcement of desegregation) was essential to the Cold War global strategy of managing the decolonizing world economically and politically. 

The Brown decision aligned with Wilsonian anticolonialism and Cold War liberalism,[vi] which discredited and violently rejected Black radicalism and solidified Black cold war liberalism as the only acceptable articulation of Black freedom.

The punitive action the State Department took against William Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress after he circulated his petition, “We Charge Genocide,” in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1951, attests to the ways in which the Cold War state had a vested interest in shaping the narrative around the treatment of Black folk. “We Charge Genocide” was all the more embarrassing to the United States given that the NAACP—with W.E.B. Du Bois at the helm—had presented “An Appeal to the World” to the United States just four years earlier, arguing that racial discrimination was inhumane, barbaric, and a gross injustice to Black folk. Though the U.S. delegation to the UN refused to introduce it to the general assembly and Eleanor Roosevelt roundly condemned the document, the Soviet Union demanded that the allegations be investigated, and world attention became even more focused on racial atrocities committed in the United States. “We Charge Genocide” argued that, “history has shown that the racist theory of the government of the U.S.A. is not the private affair of Americans, but the concern of mankind everywhere.”[i] The Justice Department demanded that Patterson, the primary architect of the petition, surrender his passport. The backlash that resulted from We Charge Genocide proved that any challenge to the liberal antiracist pedagogy of the Cold War state was unacceptable.

The third point of the Horne thesis is that the United States government brutally suppressed African Americans on the left that pursued an “anti-racist, anti-imperialist, proletarian internationalist agenda” while making concessions to civil rights reforms, like the Brown decision, in order to legitimate its claim to be the leader of the democratic free world.[ii] Horne writes:

After the war rulers decided to ease the horror of Jim Crow, partly because of the need to be able to charge Moscow with human rights violations. Yet this civil rights victory had to be carried out while ousting black Communists like [Ben] Davis from previously held positions of influence among African-Americans… Thus, Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny came in 1954 in the midst of the Cold War and the Red Scare.[i]

In other words, desegregation was used as a means to both seduce the Third World into legitimating U.S. global hegemony vis-à-vis the USSR and Non-Alignment, and to crush Black militant struggle. By ruling that segregation was unconstitutional and therefore un-American and fundamentally incompatible with the most industrialized country in the world, the United States could validate the claims of Civil Rights activists that racism was backward, anachronistic, and unjust. Since race was a primary feature of Soviet propaganda in their efforts to encourage and generate anti-American sentiment,[i] it was only through the pedagogy of the state that antiracism could be articulated. Any deviation from the statist position on antiracism was subject to redbaiting. Thus the realization of desegregation and racial progress came to be thought of as only being possible through the discrediting of the Black Left agenda.

[i] Mary Dudziak, “Josephine Baker, Racial Protest, and the Cold War,” The Journal of American History 81(1994), 555.

[i] Gerald Horne, Black Liberation/Red Scare: Ben Davis and the Communist Party, (Newark: The University of Delaware Press, 1994), 13.

[i] Ibid., 97.

[ii] McDuffie, “Black and Red,” 236.

[i] McDuffie, “Black and Red,” 236.

[ii] Dudziak, “Desegregation as Cold War Imperative,” 113, footnote 299.

[iii] Ibid., 92.

[iv] Plummer, “African Americans in the International Imaginary,” 225.

[v] Dudziak, “Desegregation as Cold War Imperative,” 107.

[vi] Von Eschen, “Challenging Cold War Habits,” 627-638.

[i] McDuffie, “Black and Red,” 236.

[ii] Dudziak, “Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative,” Stanford Law Review 41 (1988), 122.

[iii] Von Eschen, “Challenging Cold War Habits,” 635.

[iv] Ibid., 627-638.

[v] Ibid., 619.

[vi] McDuffie, “Black and Red,” 237.

[i] Dudziak, “Desegregation as Cold War Imperative,” 64.

[ii] Cleavis R. Headley, “Lewis Gordon’s Existential Phenomenological Project and Deconstruction: Bad Faith, Alterity, and Ethics,” CLR James Journal 14 (2008): 198.

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[iii] Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1995), 45.

[i] James L. Roark, “American Black Leaders: The Response to Colonialism and the Cold War, 1943-1953,” African Historical Studies 4 (1971), 254.