Symbolic Boundaries and Status Transformation: Explaining the Decline of Post-Civil War Civic Opportunities among African Americans, 1865-1905
Sociology Indiana University Mannheim, Germany
Once a group succeeds to attain full legal rights and equality and obtains political power through office-holding, what mechanisms allow for the retrenchment of status attainment? After the end of bond slavery in the United States, African American political representation reached a pinnacle during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). The number of African Americans in the U.S. House and Senate was not again repeated until 1970, and the number of African Americans represented in certain state legislatures has never been repeated. Yet within a few short years African Americans were once again denied the vote, experienced profound status displacement, and decline in economic conditions. Using independently collected archival data, I construct a field of possibilities and suggest that three possible models of racial organization existed in American society after the civil war. I compare media data, political representation records from the State and Federal levels (e.g. State Legislatures and the U.S. Congress) for support and attitudes towards the various models of race-relations. Finally, I look to three environments in which these models (Preference to Whites, Race-Neutral Equality, and Preference to African Americans) were tested. I find that a confluence of cultural factors ? Northern ambivalence, African American migration to the North and West, and the rise of new immigrant groups to the Northeast and California - produced a challenge to the postbellum status politics and resulted in a revival of Anglo-Saxon heritage movements which triumphed over legal-political rights. Finally, I follow in Roger Brubakers' suggestion that we challenge notions of groups as a "putative thing in the world" and look to organizational actors who benefit from ethnic splintering. To this end, I show that ethnic entrepreneurs in the South were able to successfully lobby for a division of "the South" into a typology of Southern groups (the Southern oligarchy, "poor white trash" and redeemable "Appalachia") which ultimately enabled the redemption of the white South. The case of Southern whites and African Americans provides an important portal through which to understand the ways in which the production of cultural meanings of groups, racial or ethnic, can usurp legal and political designations.