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excerpted from: and Fall of African American Fortunes--interest Convergence and Civil Rights Gains, 37 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 369-387, 369-371 (Summer, 2002)

In 1958, an Alabama court sentenced Jimmy Wilson, a black handyman, to death for the crime of stealing less than two dollars in change. When the world press trumpeted the story, an embarrassed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles intervened and helped overturn Wilson's sentence. A new book by University of Southern California Law Center legal historian Mary Dudziak argues that the Wilson case was not an isolated event, but one of many in which concern for international appearances drove domestic policy during this period. Notes, Index. ($18.95).

As any follower of African American fortunes knows, racial progress has traced a zigzag path, with periods of advancement followed by ones of retrenchment. During Reconstruction, blacks made great strides, but the advances of the 1870s were soon met with violence, terror, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, which swallowed up black gains. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in an era of "separate but equal," which saw blacks consigned by law to inferior, underfunded schools, squalid public bathrooms, and separate restaurants, beaches, and theaters. In 1954, fortune smiled a second time when Brown v. Board of Education announced a ringing breakthrough for blacks. But the heady Civil Rights era of the late 1950s and 1960s came to a halt with the Burger Court, and has continued to erode with three Republican presidencies and a public that today seems increasingly tired of hearing about race and minorities.

What accounts for the rise and fall of minorities' fortunes? Two schools of thought offer competing interpretations. One, an idealist school, takes as its premise that race is a social construction. Blacks, like other groups of color, are racialized by a system of thoughts, words, messages, stories, and scripts that implant in the minds of most citizens indelible images of inferiority. The way to overcome racism, then, is to speak out against it and to arrange social structures, such as elementary education, so that whites will learn firsthand that people of different colors are just like anyone else--some good, some bad. Proponents of this view urge controls on hate speech, tout storytelling and counterstorytelling by minorities, and encourage whites to root out any unconscious racism they may harbor. For this school, social images drive racial fortunes, and the way to change these fortunes is to change the way the American public thinks and talks about race.

A competing view acknowledges that race and racism are ideas and thus, in some sense, under our control, but holds that material factors, including competition for jobs, social and pecuniary advantage, and the class interest of elite groups (that is, "interest-convergence") play an even larger role in our system of white-over-black racism. Writers in this camp, including Derrick Bell and myself, highlight how racism operates to reinforce material or psychic advantages for groups in a position to command them. In its early years, Critical Race Theory was dominated by materialists like Bell and Alan Freeman. Recently, perhaps under the influence of discourse theorists from other disciplines, the idealists have moved to the fore.