Fear of a White Moderate

Photo: Joshua Lott (Getty Images)

Remember that time when white supremacists overthrew the government?

No, not when they subverted the U.S. Constitution by deciding enslaved Africans were three-fifths of a white man. I’m talking about the other time.

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No, not when they added the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights because southern slaveholders were fearful of armed slave revolts; the other time.

No, not the Civil War—when white Southerners fought the deadliest war in American history to uphold slavery. The other time.

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When the Civil War ended, the federal government sent Union troops to occupy Southern states to keep an eye on the white men who committed treason and attempted to start a separate, white supremacist country called the Confederate States of America. Under this protection, black voters registered to vote in numbers never seen before in any racial demographic. In post-Civil War Mississippi, where the black population outnumbered whites, 90 percent of eligible black voters registered to vote. Fearful of this “black wave,” white supremacists renewed their collective effort to overthrow American democracy through violence and terrorism.

They murdered black voters, assassinated black elected officials and terrorized anyone who didn’t support the idea of a nation of white men, governed by white men, for white men. During the 1866 Louisiana Constitutional Convention, ex-Confederates, police officers and regular, store-brand white folks attacked black Republicans in New Orleans, killing any black man, woman, and child they could find. Historians estimate that the Tennessee Ku Klux Klan committed more than 1,300 murders during the run-up to the 1868 election. In Arkansas, racist terrorist cells killed 2,000. In Laurens, S.C., the governor had to declare martial law after roving execution squads murdered black voters, and there was a two-year war in North Carolina after racists forced the governor out of office. Georgia tossed 33 state senators and representatives out of office just because they had “black blood.”

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The violence culminated in the contentious presidential election of 1876, when white Southern Democrats simply fabricated the election results and refused to give their electoral votes to Republicans. So, 15 white men gathered in a smoke-filled room in 1877 and installed Rutherford B. Hayes as the 19th president of the United States. In exchange, Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the South; build a Southern railroad line; appoint at least one Democrat to his cabinet and help industrialize the former Confederate states.

Hayes’ biographers always note that he wanted to end the racial violence in the South, but he really wanted to be Commander in Chief, so Hayes sacrificed his radical agenda to become president, gaining him a reputation as a liberal moderate whose “dignity, honesty, and moderate reform” defeated the racist Democrats. But Hayes’ presidential legacy underscores the danger of moderation when it comes to white supremacy, for one significant reason.

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Hayes also made one more promise in the Compromise of 1877: He assured the Southern States that the federal government would not interfere in how the South treated its black citizens. Always the moderate, President Hayes referred to this principle as “Home Rule,” but across the South, it would become known by a more popular moniker:

Jim Crow.


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As America hurtles toward the 2020 Presidential elections, the Democratic presidential candidates are seeking to carve out a lane in which they can secure their party’s nomination. The first and more controversial path to victory is by coalescing progressive voters who favor radical reform. Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang have offered plans that will fundamentally overhaul the criminal justice system, healthcare, education and taxation.

The second route is “moderation.”

Moderate candidates preach the gospel of restraint, bipartisanship and pragmatic idealism. They explain how they compromised with segregationists for incremental bipartisan change. They court “undecided voters,” “middle Americans” and “soccer moms.” They believe that reparations are too “divisive.” Even though the Democratic Party’s base is non-white, the strategy of practical politicians rests on the notion that moderate voters still make up the vast majority of Democratic Party and—more importantly, the American electorate.

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In other words: white people.

And this is the dilemma of black voters.

More than anyone, black voters know that white America has no tolerance for radical reform, which is why we often defer to candidates who demonstrate that they might be able to win elections. As the Grand Old Party increasingly demonstrates its allegiance to white supremacy, for us, a tap water-temperature Democrat is still better than a store-brand Republican…

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Maybe.

Black America also understands that white people must be dragged, kicking and screaming toward progress and equality. Moderate federalists protected slavery in the Constitution because they didn’t want to ostracize their fellow slaveowners. An overwhelming majority of white America had negative views of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights demonstrations even though the response to violent racial terrorism was moderate, non-violent demonstrations. The 1994 crime bill that fueled mass incarceration, the War on Drugs and unequal sentencing was essentially a compromise between white moderates and “law and order” conservatives. White moderates made America drag its feet on integration, voting rights, social security, universal health care, gun control legislation and every significant piece of progressive legislation in history.

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This is why institutional inequality persists. School funding is based on community wealth and the only way to change the formula is a radical overhaul of America’s education system. Police violence is a byproduct of structural racism and must be fundamentally restructured. Racism is embedded in every part of the criminal justice system, including bail, arrests, sentencing and parole. There are no happy mediums when it comes to repairing these breaches.

If white supremacy is a disease, then moderation is just a placebo. Savvy black voters are beginning to realize that a white moderate will not save us. In the long, storied history of America, it has never, ever happened and the nature of political compromise and the lessons of the past teach us that it never will. Yet, despite the Democratic Party’s status as the default choice of black citizens, the party is still led by old, white pragmatists who place the desires of potential white voters above the demands of its black base.

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Without an ounce of irony, moderates will explain why this is not the right time for radical plans to eliminate the wealth gap, eradicate injustice or erase institutional inequality. Even some black people will agree that we should wait until we can replace the current White Nationalist-in-Chief with a more reasonable alternative. Even some black people refer to this strategy as “compromise” or “political expediency.” Martin Luther King called it a “more convenient season.” But in the context of history, this insidious moderation is known by a more popular moniker:

White supremacy.

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About the author

Michael Harriot

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.