Things Done Changed: America in the ‘90s

Reverberations of the 1960s rumbled the culture as the 1990s began. Throughout American education, from elementary school to postsecondary institutions, the wave of cultural and political changes begun in the mid-century were finally becoming encoded in curriculum and instituted in educational policy. Largely gone were the campus building occupations and confrontations with riot police of the ’60s (the Atlanta University Center after the Rodney King verdict is one notable exception), but the effects of that campus tumult a generation prior were finally being instituted. After the wave of campus protests subsided in the late ’60s, many American campuses returned to more or less the status quo. The same professors and administrators, themselves often educated decades earlier, mostly maintained the same unchanged curriculum for disproportionately white (and male) student bodies. Significant changes to curriculum and campus culture were only seen at a small handful of colleges and universities at the time. The explosive campus protests of the ’60s, while dramatic, only set into motion what would come to effect in the ’90s, the substantive changes to what role schools and universities would play in the wider culture.

“The 1960’s brought people into academic careers who saw their work as a chance to continue to try to change the world,” worried conservative scholar Stephen Balch in 1991. US News and World Report assessed the phenomenon in a 1989 article, “‘60s protesters, ’80s professors,” describing “a generation of younger professors, children of the ’60s, who are transforming the scholarship of the ‘80s.” The college campus was now the principal battlefield in the culture war, the detonation from the fuse lit during the ’60s. “Five years ago no one except professional educators paid much attention to what was happening in our universities and schools,” wrote James Atlas in his 1992 Battle of the Books. “Now it often seems as if no one can talk about anything else.”

And with President Bush having taken aim at this new “political correctness” — or “p.c.,” as it was quickly coming to be abbreviated — it soon left its academic home to become the primary means of talking about the culture war, whether in politics or in pop culture. Movies like PCU clumsily lampooned politically correct campus life, while John Singleton’s film Higher Learning concurred with the new leftward direction of campus culture, its final image a campus’ American flag with the text “unlearn” superimposed. Racial violence marred the film’s opening week, and the studio, Columbia Pictures, offered extra security to theaters.

Schools and universities became the center of the conservatives’ culture war because it was becoming understood, rather suddenly, that racial integration wasn’t simply going to mean merely the presence of black bodies in schools and universities; it would mean the inclusion of black perspectives, black thought. This presented a radical challenge to the American story on which American power and its allocation was predicated. Power doesn’t exist in the present without a narrative or mythos justifying its rightful acquisition in the past. White male cultural hegemony and power is maintained in the organized transfer of a supporting narrative to successive generations. The school is where this is maintained, and this is what integration was threatening. Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 1990 to warn against dismantling America’s “great unifying myths.” But the worry wasn’t simply that a cherished white, Western telling of American history was being eroded, but that the nation could not remain cohered with multiple historical narratives. Noonan wrote, “If our retelling of our past is dominated by the compulsive skepticism of the modern mind, with its ill-thought-out disdain, then we will stop being America.” The overarching national narrative and identity was indeed being fractured. Historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer describe how in the wake of the civil rights movement “it became increasingly difficult to discern anything that resembled a coherent or cohesive ‘American’ identity.” Historian Jill Lepore agrees that after the past several decades “we don’t have a good, coherent national story anymore.”

If a nation is an “imagined community,” what happens when a “great unifying” imagining of the national community is splintered into multiple tellings? This was the quickly growing fear in the new academic and cultural moment. It wasn’t only conservatives like Noonan who feared that the nation could not survive a fracturing of the American story. Perhaps the most dire warning of this sort came from a liberal veteran of the John F. Kennedy administration, historian Arthur Schlesinger, whose 1992 Disuniting of America ominously declared that only by maintaining a sort of white ethno-nationalist historical narrative would the country ultimately stay together. Only the traditional telling of American history and the general absorption of the country’s various ethnicities into that dominant white, Western identity could keep the country whole. Schlesinger warned of an “eruption of ethnicity” in the new academic trends in multiculturalism. “Ethnicity is the cause of the breaking of nations,” he darkly warned. “The historic idea of a unifying American identity is now in peril in many arenas,” wrote the liberal academic, “and in no arena is the rejection of an overriding national identity more crucial than in our system of education.” The title of the book was not figurative or metaphorical; Schlesinger predicted national dissolution if the dominant white, Western telling of history was challenged by competing narratives, especially those propelled by black skepticism and disdain. “[T]he cult of ethnicity in general and the Afrocentric campaign in particular do not bode well for … the future of the republic.” Only by the general absorption of all peoples into the traditional white, Western (and male) historical narrative could the country be saved, Schlesinger implored.

Just a generation into the experiment in racial integration, America was deeply ambivalent about it. Another paradox afflicted the American psyche: with integration now fully underway, America was, to many, simultaneously too white and too black. It appeared an irreconcilable tension. Many whites, conservative and liberal, found black influence in education and culture to be making the country too black. At its most dramatic, this white fear asserted that the country becoming too black would mean its end. Black bodies could be integrated into formerly white spaces, like schools, but blackness (or non-whiteness) must be extinguished. Thus, many black Americans felt that integration meant absorption into a preexisting white cultural and political order — a sort of erasure of blackness.

The Reverend Abraham Woods, who had headed the Birmingham chapter of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the height of the civil rights movement, told journalist Haynes Johnson in the early ’90s, “What integration really meant to us was that swallowing up of what was once predominantly black by that which is all white.” Woods, who’d been with King on the front lines of the fight for integration in the ’60s, lamented, “The control has been maintained by the whites.” Johnson spoke to a black lawyer in Selma, Alabama, another critical site in the fight for integration, who confessed that since the end of the 1960s, “I have felt more and more the outsider, less and less the American.” It was during this time that Afrocentrism exploded into a sort of cultural secession. A full-throated rejection of white hegemony, Afrocentrism’s rise in the early ’90s coincided precisely with the emergence of white conservatives’ culture war and the white anxiety that the country could not survive unless black integration meant absorption into a still-white America.

There were signs that integration wasn’t working, that America did not want to be one country. After the peak in public school integration in 1988, a new wave of resegregation began to creep back. Integration did not peak and then plateau to start the decade; the country began reversing course in the ’90s. The high-water mark of 1988 was the peak before a decline. A Gallup poll in 1991 found that 58% of respondents were opposed to busing children to achieve better racial balance in schools. It had been court rulings in the late ’60s and early ’70s that finally ordered busing regimes to begin sorting black and white children into truly integrated school populations. In 1996, Gallup found the opposition to busing had risen to 62%. An integrated america, for many whites, was too black, and they retreated by various means and methods. School privatization schemes and home-schooling both began to grow to create alternate means of keeping white education white. So-called “white flight” was the wholesale creation of mostly, when not entirely, all white communities outside of city centers. All of these tactics have resulted in schools now in much of the country being as segregated as any time in the last 40 years, with many black children in schools little different demographically than before the Brown ruling in 1954.

A generation into the reluctant experiment in racial integration, the impulse to separate grew. Both black and white separatism were on the rise throughout the decade, both movements constituting the most radical edges of broader social impulses to reject integration. Black nationalism and black separatism would continue to build during the decade, but so would white separatism and white nationalism. The white nationalism festered until it erupted in the deadliest terror attack in the nation’s history, by far the most violent terror attack until 9/11 surpassed it. This renewed far-right extremism and white nationalism led to a series of terror attacks throughout the decade. The anti-government rhetoric of white separatists and nationalists would begin to find echoes in conservative ideology, with figures like Pat Buchanan stitching political sinews between the far-right nationalists and the core of the Republican Party.

Black separatism and black nationalism, too, percolated through the culture, with Nation of Islam leader Leader Louis Farrakhan largely supplanting more moderate leaders like Jesse Jackson in the early decade. Farrakhan’s angry message of black separatism resonated in black culture, especially among the youth, and the Islamic leader’s 1995 march in the nation’s capital nearly tripled the attendance of Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963. Farrakhan and black Islam grew to permeate hip hop, with platinum-selling artists bringing the Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earths, the two largest sects black Islam, to millions of music fans.

Farrakhan, flanked by his Fruit of Islam (FOI) security forces, speaks to the hundreds of thousands assembled at the 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C.

In 1990, Farrakhan would appear on the nation’s most popular talk show, the Phil Donahue Show, to extend his message of black separatism all the way to middle American living rooms. “The country is not only separate and unequal,” he told Donahue, “but in worse condition today than it was then [in the ‘60s]. America has never believed in integration. Never.” Farrakhan then laid out his proposal for an “an Islamic state, an Islamic nation for black people” carved out of the existing United States:

If we are already separate but unequal and there is not the will on the part of the United States government nor is there a national will to reconcile the differences between black and white…and in the face of overwhelming evidence that America really doesn’t want black people, then let’s tally up what is owed to us, let’s sit down and talk about a just solution, and I tell you like Moses said to Pharaoh: Let us go and do something for ourselves.

Farrakhan’s most radical proposal was to effectively abolish the incipient mass incarceration phenomenon begun in earnest during Reagan’s presidency. Free all the black prisoners, said Farrakhan to Donahue, and let the new black nation receive them as citizens. “We have 609,000 black young men behind prison bars, with no hope at all,” he said. “Let us reform them.”

This was the message that resonated at the beginning of the decade. Just weeks after Farrakhan’s appearance on the nation’s top talk show, rap group Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet, which sampled Farrakhan’s voice and quickly reached a million records sold. “Rap’s got religion and that religion’s Islam,” said SPIN magazine about the wave of black Muslim influence in hip hop at the beginning of the decade. “Nationalism is the new truth for young blacks of all classes,” wrote the magazine’s David Samuel. Howard University political science professor Ronald Walters explained, “Supporting Farrakhan has become a way of hitting back at the system and expressing black public opinion.” Time magazine reported in 1990, “In Los Angeles more than 1000 black men, many of them former gang members, have recently joined the Nation of Islam.”

Public Enemy’s platinum-selling pro-Farrakhan record was followed closely by Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, just weeks later. Ice Cube was not yet affiliated with Farrakhan and black Islam, but he would be as the decade proceeded. The NWA lyricist’s debut album was even angrier than Public Enemy’s. The first verse of the first song on the album, itself the rapper’s first, was an immediate strike, warning of a black uprising: “The day is coming that you’ll all hate / Just think if niggas decide to retaliate.” The next song was even more menacing: “It’s time to take a trip to the suburbs / Let ’em see a nigga invasion / Point blank on a caucasian.” The album, too, went platinum. The first year of the decade would see a cascade of Farrakhan-inspired and Afrocentric rap acts achieve success.

Oakland rapper Paris would, like Chuck D, combine an anti-capitalist impulse with a full commitment to Farrakhan’s Islam on his 1990 The Devil Made Me Do It. While Paris didn’t enjoy the explosive commercial success of Public Enemy and Ice Cube, he did inspire a young 2Pac, also in Oakland at the time, and cultivated a devoted fan base. Calling himself “the Black Panther of rap,” Paris was both a Black Panther-style socialist and a card-carrying member of the Nation of Islam. The 1990 debut was dense with revolutionary theory and black Islam, citing black Marxist anti-colonialist thinker Frantz Fanon and Chairman Mao alongside Malcolm X.

Paris’ The Devil Made Me Do It peaked at #20 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart in January 1991. The song told listeners to “follow in the path of Fanon and Mao” and denounced the white devil of black Islam: “Just the way the devil had planned it / Rape then pillage everyone on the planet / Then give ’em fake gods at odds with Allah / Love thy enemy and all that hoopla.”

The 1990s would see black and white separatism, once fringe notions, seep into the wider culture. School integration would continue to reverse course. What historian Kevin Kruse calls the “suburban secession” of whites into the far-flung exurban peripheries of cities drained urban schools of whites and created nearly, or entirely, all-white schools in the new territories founded by the white-flight secessionists. In 1994, the Newt Gingrich-led Republican takeover of the House of Representatives — ending a full four decades of Democratic power in that chamber — was the national-level product of the white secession from the cities, according to Kruse. Gingrich and much of the new leaders of the right-bearing GOP represented similar suburban and exurban “white flight” districts. Kruse writes that during the decade “the new generation of suburban Republicans simply took the politics of white flight to the national stage.”

The two parties now, for the first time since the Civil War, clearly represented America’s two warring impulses. Journalist Joe Klein called party leader Gingrich a “reverse Clausewitz” who “considered politics the extension of war.” The separatist and nationalist impulses of the white right, whether it was that of David Duke and Pat Buchanan or the far more banal secession of whites to the suburbs, now had their home indisputably in the Republican Party. And while the black nationalism and separatism of the black left in the ’90s was not adopted, and was indeed shunned, by the Democratic Party (then-candidate Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” made this clear), the party did become the home of black Americans and their interests (to the extent those interests saw any representation in Washington).

Washington accelerated toward dysfunction as the two parties hardened into ideological camps founded on seemingly irreconcilable identities and conceptions of the nation. The Republican Party became the party of a certain white identity as the Southern Strategy initiated by Richard Nixon was completed in the early decade. The Georgia congressional delegation, as Kruse points out, flipped from being nine Democrats and one Republican in 1990 to being eight Republicans and three Democrats in 1995, and “in a sign of the two parties’ cemented racial identities, all the Republicans were white and all the Democrats black.” The cultural conflict and racial division that, according to Vox’s Ezra Klein, had been “submerged outside the political system” had now come into the system and made the two parties into political armies representing the two Americas. “They are, in many ways, breaking the political system,” Klein worries.

But despite the paralytic dysfunction that seized Washington during the ’90s and accelerated the country toward the current political crisis, it was in fact the decade’s political agreement that played as big a part in destabilizing the nation as the bitter fighting. It was the remaining bipartisan consensus, nearly as fervently pursued as the fighting, that began loosening the bonds that held the country together. The country was, in many ways, agreeing to dissolve.

Continue to part five.

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine