Things Done Changed: America in the ’90s

Part Three: The Culture War Begins

Begin the full series here.

Complete with its own urban uprising of the sort seen since the 1960s, the ’90s can be seen as a sort of epilogue to the ’60s, or even an extension of that momentous and tumultuous mid-century decade. The ’90s sees the completion of the great changes initiated in the ’60s (and during the civil rights era generally). School integration, for instance, doesn’t finally reach its peak level until just before the decade’s start, in 1988, 34 years after the Brown decision and two decades after a series of Supreme Court mandates issued to finally force integration in the South. As the decade opened, America was concluding only its first generation of formally and legally free black citizens with democratic rights. In not insignificant ways, the America defined by its democratic and liberal ideals doesn’t begin until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. After more than two centuries of slavery followed by another century of Southern apartheid, integration was still an experiment as the decade begins.

The Los Angeles rebellions of 1965 (left) and 1992 (right). The 1965 violence claimed 34 lives, while the 1992 upheaval resulted in more than 50 fatalities, making it the deadliest urban insurrection in American history.

In many ways, Sixties-era changes don’t take effect until the ’90s, whether in politics, culture, or education. As explosive and volatile as the ’60s were, there is still significant lag in how a population of hundreds of millions changes. All the fire of ’60s might be thought of as the lighting of a fuse whose detonation wouldn’t occur until the ’90s. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the first of two acts to dismantle the legal apparatus of Southern apartheid, President Lyndon Johnson famously turned to one his aides and lamented, “We have lost the South for a generation.” And while he was correct that the Democrats, having taken charge on establishing civil and voting rights for black Americans, would lose the half of their party comprised of white Southerners, he was wrong on the time frame. The Republican “Southern Strategy” to lure angry white Southerners away from their Democratic Party home began soon after the landmark civil rights legislation, but Republicans did not truly conquer the South for a generation.

Klansman David Duke, a Democrat just several years before, would align with the Republicans in the ’90s.

The GOP did not capture the Southern white vote for good until 1994, when the former Confederate states sent their first Republican-majority class to Congress since Reconstruction and powered the first Republican control of the House in 40 years. “The result is a political landscape no one alive has ever seen,” reported the New York Times, one that would “re-create the Republicans as the party of the white South.” The surprising latency in the partisan re-sorting can be seen in the figure of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who’d entered Louisiana politics. Duke became a national newsmaker in the early ’90s as a Republican candidate for the US Senate and then the governorship of Louisiana, but Duke had only abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP in 1989, after running a number of races as a Democrat since 1975. As late as his 1988 presidential candidacy, Duke remained a Democrat, running for that party’s ticket despite Jesse Jackson being that party’s second-leading vote-getter. With the newly minted Republican beginning the decade a freshman in the Louisiana House of Representatives, the Klansman politician demonstrated that President Johnson’s warning in 1964 was only just then truly materializing. Even the country’s most famous Klansman was just now joining the Republican ranks.

Coinciding with the generation-long lag in electoral effects of the 1960s was a delay in the young participants in the sixties’ movements grabbing the levers of institutional, establishment power. Georgia congressman John Lewis may have helped change history in his early twenties as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but he isn’t a member of congress until 1987. SDS leader, and later Weather Underground revolutionary, Bill Ayers doesn’t gain his PhD in education until that same year. Sixties campus activist Bernie Sanders doesn’t bring his socialism to Washington until 1990. Vietnam-era anti-war protester Bill Clinton’s power doesn’t fully manifest until 1992.

So, too, was this generational lag seen in education, where decades of latency seemed, for many, to suddenly materialize in rapid and uncomfortable change. American education became the center of the culture war, where changes initiated in the ’60s were finally being contested on a nationwide scale, from the university level down to elementary school. With racial integration finally reaching its peak levels in the late ’80s, curriculum began to change to reflect the new multiracial and multicultural student bodies. California and New York were the first to overhaul their social studies, histories and humanities curricula statewide at the beginning of the decade. “Never before have elementary-school texts made such an effort to include the broad sweep of history and the divergent cultures that flow into the American mainstream,” reported the New York Times Magazine in a 1991 cover story about the new California textbooks. The new texts were seen to undo much of the historical whitewashing seen in curriculum theretofore. For instance, the new histories featured “as harsh a portrait of slavery as ever given in an elementary text,” according to a California textbook’s editor. The San Francisco Chronicle in 1991 reported that the state’s “unusual new textbooks deal head-on with multiculturalism, racial conflict and the seamier realities of America’s past.” The Chronicle described California students as being on “the front edge of a revolution in the teaching of history and social studies, one that has been building in many states for years but has reached its fullest flower in California.” And with the populous states largely steering the textbook market, now a new telling of the story of America was quickly making its way from the coasts inward and southward.

White Americans understood, if unconsciously, that ultimately school and the domain of children is where cultural power is reproduced, where the social scaffolding is rebuilt every generation. In the first such instance of demographic panic, and long before more recent bouts, Time magazine in April 1990 would publish a cover story about the populational trend that would make white Americans an eventual minority. It was revelatory of the growing white panic to see the nation’s biggest magazine devote its cover story to a potentiality a full six decades in the future, a span of time more appropriate for science fiction than journalism. But Time’s worry about that fearsome future was as much about education as it was about the distribution of melanin across the population. A photo of a multi-ethnic California elementary school class stretched across a two-page spread to open the article, with the article mostly dedicated to American identity formation in a time of changing curriculum. “What will the U.S. be like when whites are no longer the majority?” fretted the magazine on its cover, while inside the article concerned itself more with the story of America and the ownership of its telling. The “revisionist history” underway in education is “troubling,” the magazine warned. “Rather than accepting U.S. history and its meaning as settled, citizens feel ever more free to debate where the nation’s successes sprang from and what its unalterable beliefs are.” And this, the article concludes, will alter “individuals’ sense of themselves and their nation — their idea of what it is to be American.”

Nations are “imagined,” according to Anderson, ”because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” The New Republic’s Jeet Heer calls Imagined Communities “far and away the most influential study of nationalism.”

Schools are where the story of America is told. It is where Americans are made. During the ’80s, theorists of the modern nation-state had posited that the nation is what Benedict Anderson termed an “imagined community,” a story shared through texts and curricula. Citizens never meet, or even see, but a relative handful of fellow citizens during their lifetime and thus share only a story of their shared nation. “Modern man is not loyal to a monarch, or a land, or a faith,” wrote philosopher Ernest Gellner wrote in 1983, but to what he called a “school-transmitted culture.” Famed literary critic E.D. Hirsch concurred in his 1988 book Cultural Literacy: “At the heart of modern nationhood is the teaching of literacy and a common culture through a national system of education.” A 1991 front-page article in the New York Times about the finalization of the curricular changes deliberated for New York students began, “The battle over the New York State social studies curriculum is fundamentally a battle over the idea of America.”

In much the same way Pat Buchanan’s culture war foes, which included feminists, immigrants, “homosexual rights” activists and liberals generally, could be reduced to the specter of the black bogeyman in his RNC address in 1992, the spreading panic among conservatives about the addition of multicultural curriculum most often found its principal focus on the black influence in education. In a broad war over the great cultural changes underway since the mid-century, black Americans were the transcendental signifier, the symbol of change that stood at the center of the conservative constellation of anxieties. So consumed with their resistance to the mere presence of black students in their white education system, white conservatives appear to have perhaps been blindsided by the eventual accompanying demands that curriculum change to reflect how black Americans understood the nation’s history. It wasn’t just the admission of black students, but the the intrusion of black perspectives that also unsettled whites.

White conservatives at the decade’s start were still very resistant to discussions of black history. Some states still refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday. Arizona put the question to its citizens in 1990, and voters rejected an official holiday to celebrate black liberation. (Rap group Public Enemy issued a fierce rebuke of the state’s decision, and the NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl from Phoenix following the vote.) Black History Month, too, was a highly contentious matter in many schools and districts. A South Carolina high school principal would report in 1991 that “the racial confrontations that occur during the month of February usually extend into the spring months.”

But if even standard black history was met with white ire, the more aggressive wave of Afrocentrism popular in the early decade, and most popular on college campuses, created a panic. While Afrocentrism flourished into a broad cultural movement of music, art and fashion, Afrocentric history and its growing influence in education is what most unsettled many whites. The Afrocentric telling of history reasserted that humanity began in Africa and privileged the many achievements of African peoples, both on the continent and in the diaspora, independent of and in spite of Europeans. Not only did Afrocentrism reject the need for white European peoples and culture; it presented a criminality in the white Euro-American genome that was an impediment to black flourishing. Often overlapping with the dogma of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and its black Muslim sibling, the Nation of Gods and Earths, Afrocentrism emphasized black virtue, or even supremacy, in contrast to white European historical wrongdoing. Unlike the traditional white telling of history, which could largely elide the country’s foundational crimes, Afrocentric history required white European criminality as a basis. In both strains of American black Islam the white man is positioned as the devil.

Afrocentrism thoroughly permeated black youth culture in the first few years of the decade. Platinum rap acts like Public Enemy and Ice Cube delivered Afrocentrism and black Islam to millions. A young 2Pac would bitterly indict America (pronounced “AmeriKa-Ka-Ka” to accord with the popular AmeriKKKa spelling) on his 1992 debut album, revising conventional history to describe for listeners century-spanning white American criminality from the advent of slavery to the fresh allegation that the Reagan administration had trafficked crack cocaine into the black inner-city: “Made to feel inferior, but we’re superior / Break the chains in our brains that made us fear ya / Pledge allegiance to a flag that neglects us / Honor a man that refused to respect us / Emancipation Proclamation? Please! / Lincoln just said that to save the nation / These are lies that we all accepted / Say no to drugs but the government’s kept it.”

Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” popularized with a Spike Lee-directed video and a place on the soundtrack for Lee’s Do the Right Thing, rejected white cultural hegemony and history:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me, you see
Straight up racist that sucker was, simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back, you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check

The song became the group’s biggest song and was made the closer on their 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet. The entire album was a rejection of white culture and white history, intended to attack “the whole belief structure of the Western world with its white cultural supremacy,” according to rapper Chuck D, who, said SPIN magazine in 1990, “proclaimed the death of European predominance.” The album’s first proper song promised “real history, not his story.”

Spike Lee was only the first of a number of black directors forming a new black wave in cinema in the early ’90s. The new wave of black cinema was almost uniformly Afrocentric, with Lee having his biggest success with his blockbuster 1992 Malcolm X biopic. The opening sequence of John Singleton’s 1991 Boyz n the Hood is an Afrocentric rejection of a white conservative telling of history, both recent and distant. The opening scene, in which Reagan, already a quasi-deity among some conservatives, is presented as an outlaw, is followed directly by a scene in which the protagonist, South Central Los Angeles grade-schooler Tre Styles, enacts Afrocentric historical revisionism in real time. After deriding his white history teacher’s telling of history, Tre takes to the front of the classroom and confronts his teacher’s Eurocentric account of the nation’s founding with his own, broader Afrocentrism. “Did you know that Africa is where the body of the first man was found?” Tre asks as he points to the continent on the map. “That’s where all people originated from. That means everybody’s really from Africa. Everybody.”

It was the classroom where the culture war was really being fought. White culture warriors may have taken to battling the rappers and black directors (a 1992 public tussle between Vice President Dan Quayle and 2Pac found its pinnacle when the young rapper told the VP to “eat a dick up” on his 1993 album Strictly for my N.I.G.G.A.Z.), but the central concern remained schools. And if one theater of the culture war was elementary school, colleges and universities were the other, where a far more pitched battle raged. The is where the battle typically found its interface with the wider culture. Beginning with more erudite and moderated warnings about changes in college culture and curriculum in the late ’80s (e.g., Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy), there soon came a wave of ever more alarmist books about the new campus culture. The term “political correctness” (or p.c.) emerged in 1990 to give the broader American culture a term to sum, however crudely, what was happening on American campuses.

In an early article on the campus crucible, the New York Times in 1991 explained that “political correctness,” “which has roots in 1960’s radicalism, is the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called ‘the white male power structure’ or ‘patriarchal hegemony.’ A related belief is that everybody but white heterosexual males has suffered some form of repression and been denied a cultural voice or been prevented from celebrating what is commonly called ‘otherness.’” Thus, the “goals” of campus p.c. activists, according to another 1991 Times article, were “more diverse curriculums, affirmative action and the suppression of racial hatreds, among others.” Those had been the goals of ’60s radicals, but their achievement had been limited during that era and the following decades. Those ‘60s-era student protesters and radicals were now, however, in positions to steer campus culture. “Political correctness is a symbol for a real shift in power at American universities,” said Marguerite Ross Barnett, the president of the University of Houston in 1991. Watching the culture being changed, in public schools and then at the college level, conservative thinkers issued a volley of books and articles about the phenomenon. “An academic and cultural revolution in under way at American universities,” wrote a young Dinesh D’Souza in his Illiberal Education, published in 1991. D’Souza worried, “When America loses her predominantly white stamp, what impact will that have on her Western cultural traditions?” Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick Cheney and Reagan-appointed chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities, issued a lengthy NEH report warning of the “newly politicized nature of debate in humanities.”

Even President Bush in 1991 made the matter of campus political correctness a national issue, despite the p.c. phenomenon being mere months old. The New York Times in early 1991 called political correctness a “term that began to gain currency at the start of the academic year last fall, has spread in recent months and has become the focus of an angry national debate, mainly on campuses.” But despite the term being not even a full school-year old, the president was already enlisted to fight on the p.c. front of the culture war. This was the degree to which white America, and white conservatives especially, were spooked by the sudden loss of ground in the nascent culture war. President Bush took the opportunity as commencement speaker at University of Michigan in May 1991 to bring the campus battle into the national discourse.

New York Magazine, January 1991. The words “racism,” “oppression” and “sexism” are placed in quotes, suggesting that they’re often empty and unjustifiable charges, while the word “fascist” isn’t in quotes, implying that that descriptor is beyond doubt.

“We find free speech under assault throughout the United States,” Bush warned. “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land.” Despite whatever racism and sexism it discourages, said the president, political correctness “replaces old prejudice with new ones.” Bush stopped short of using the word “fascist,” a common descriptor and the association which New York Magazine had made a few months earlier in a panicked cover story, but the president described political correctness as at least a quasi-fascist movement: “In their own Orwellian way, crusades that demand correct behavior crush diversity in the name of diversity. We all should be alarmed at the rise of intolerance in our land and by the growing tendency to use intimidation rather than reason in settling disputes.”

The president had been enlisted. The culture war was on.


Part four coming soon.

Read part one.

Read part two.