IT IS the late '80s. The situation in the United States is uneasy. All around there are signs of change: social, economic and racial. For some time, black leaders have been questioning their allegiance to the party that during the '60s and '70s helped bring them civil rights and then anxiously solicited their support. Now in many areas black votes are taken for granted. In others, they are shunned as white candidates appeal openly to white voters.
Beginning in the '70s, an increasingly conservative Supreme Court began reversing the progressive trend in civil rights; and newly appointed justices seem unlikely to alter that condition. Whites in and out of government, and especially in the press, are becoming increasingly outspoken about the apparent relationship between race and crime. In some areas, vigilante groups have begun patrolling the streets, looking for young black men who are believed by the public, including many black leaders, to be responsible for the majority of urban crime.
White disenchantment with black politicians is growing, and black officeholders are increasingly portrayed as venal or incompetent. Middle-class blacks, who benefitted most from the great strides in civil rights, are increasingly embittered by what they view as blatant white hypocrisy and neglect. Newly ascendant conservative black leaders have launched attacks against black politicians, while also charging the black elite with turning their backs on distressed city slums.
In the '70s a popular president left office amid charges that his was the most corrupt administration in U.S. history. Reformers accuse politicians of being in bed with big business as it gobbles up small family-run companies in the name of quick profits. Yet the public mood is hostile to the troubles of the working man and indifferent to the plight of the farmer.
Sound uncomfortably familiar? Welcome to America in the 1880s. Like Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant also ended his presidency under a cloud of scandal and the nation lapsed into turmoil. What can we learn from these parallels to the 1880s? Among other things, the 1890s turned out to be far worse.
Despite widespread predictions that the decade would see a crash or serious depression, the country became wedded to a policy of unprecedented borrowing, much of it from foreign sources, to support a resurgent prosperity. This created a new class of millionaires on a scale never before seen in a democratic society. In concert with the crass materialism of the nouveau riche, the stock market began a delerious celebratory rise while the gulf between rich and poor, black and white appeared ever more unbridgeable.
The rise of "money trusts" and massive industrial monopolies, the source of so much wealth for so many, accompanied the development of violent white racism against a backdrop of widespread corruption among white politicians and within the financial community. Whites made no apparent connection between the two, arguing that a corrupt white man what just that -- a corrupt white man -- whereas corruption in a black man was a sign of racial inferiority.
America became a great industrial nation during the turbulent '90s. It also endured one of its worst depressions. It began in 1893 with a Wall Street panic as a result of an unregulated stock market gone mad with inside deals and voracious speculation. Because of such intemperance -- and fiery determination of the president to keep the federal government out of the life of the average American -- a decade of societal dislocation followed; during which the labor movement, which is to say the working man, which is to say the ordinary citizen, suffered in the economic slump, not to recover until World War I.
Meanwhile, America began to set foot on foreign shores with the avowed purpose of bringing our own civilization and its goods and services to less fortunate and non-Christian peoples, whether they wanted them or not. As a result of the Spanish American War in 1898, America also acquired an empire that stretched from Cuba to the Philippine Islands, including a sphere of influence in the Orient. And it would have to fight a bloody war in the Philippines to hold onto those fiesty islands, whose inhabitants, having been liberated from Spain, were somewhat less than enthusiastic when their Yankee liberators decided to stick around and run things.
The 1890s were the most violent peacetime decade in our history. Under the aegis of extra-legal violence in the name of law and order, America erected a system known as segregation that became the law of the land for over half a century until the Supreme Court changed its mind in 1954. And even then Jim Crow wouldn't go away. During the 1890s a white mob lynched a black person once every two and a half days. And while terrorists spread fear through the countryside, proper gentlemen were in their state houses passing laws that made it legal to keep blacks from voting and holding office, and living, eating, and working equitably. The fusion of black Republicans (office-holding black Democrats were rare) and Greenbackers and Populists ended on a national level in 1901 when George H. White (R-NC) left office. He would be the last black congressman elected from the South until Andrew Young in 1967.
The educational system spent $10 for every white student and less than $3 per black, when they spent anything at all. To add insult to this injury, by the turn of the century, whites were going around declaiming that black Americans weren't fit for more than domestic service or unskilled labor. And the white press obliged them by portraying black politicians (who by and large adhered more to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence than their white counterparts) as sockless and thoughtless. The irony is that it need not have happened. A Republican Congress (!) passed the necessary civil rights laws during Reconstruction and for a time was intent upon enforcing them. But the Republicans quickly and all too willingly surrendered their party to the interests of big business while the Democrats once again fell under the dominion of conservative white southerners.
The good news is that America survived. In fact, it flourished. The Spanish-American War began the long painful process of "de-isolationism." In 1901, a charismatic president named Teddy Roosevelt emerged to manage the national response to pell-mell industrialization, unplanned urbanization and the arrival of wave upon wave of non-English-speaking immigrants. Unlike latter-day great communicators, TR was quite willing to change with the times. As a result, we now view that era of unprecedented violence and chaos as one of unparalled domestic tranquility and international harmony.
Howard Smead, author of "Blood Justice," teaches history at the University of Maryland.