One thing I’ve heard more than once since the killings by the police in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and the sniper killings of police officers in Dallas is that it “feels like 1968.” I’m not sure what aspect of 1968 these folks are referring to: the murders of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, the immense unrest in many major cities due to both racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, or the police riot at the Democratic National Convention.
I remember 1968, and this time feels very different to me. The present is certainly a difficult time in the US, but this isn’t a reversion to an earlier period. Rather the current situation is the product of the fact that the positive steps taken in the 1960s did not solve – and could not have solved – all of the problems caused by racism in our country, particularly since many on the right have engaged in a variety of ugly tricks to limit the overdue legal rights that African Americans finally obtained in the 1960s.
One thing does feel similar to 1968: a lot of people are taking liberal and progressive stands with pride. But another thing is very different: despite the ugly rhetoric out there (starting at the top of the Republican Party), it feels to me as if the bigots are on the run. We may struggle for the next few years – and our struggles all seem to be bloody ones – but I think there’s a good chance that we will end up with a better society.
(Caveat lector: I’m an optimist by natural inclination. I could be wrong, but let’s all hope I’m right.)
Here’s what the U.S. did in the 1960s: It outlawed legal discrimination against Black people. From Brown v. Topeka Board of Education to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts to affirmative action and hundreds of state and local laws and programs, the U.S. changed the rules. No more poll taxes, segregated schools, refusals to hire or rent to people on the grounds of race, and even some efforts to change the makeup of workplaces and elite colleges. Those laws benefited other people of color and women of all backgrounds, but they were rooted in the activism of the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Here’s what those laws didn’t do: They didn’t change the century of history in which African Americans were rarely in a position to obtain wealth on the same scale as whites. It may have become illegal in the 1960s to refuse to sell houses to African Americans or to deny them loans, but that didn’t address the fact that white people had been able to generate some family wealth through buying real estate during all those years when it was almost impossible for Black people to do so.
They didn’t change the limits on what kind of work was covered by Social Security, which somehow managed to skip the kind of work most African Americans were doing at the time that law was adopted.
They also didn’t change any of the legacy of slavery. If you go back to the end of the Civil War, you will find that slaves got “freedom,” but not much else.
Far too many white people think the changes in the 1960s “fixed” racism and discrimination. But that’s not the case. That assumption ignores the fact that previous discrimination meant that most African Americans started quite a few miles back from the starting line even if the rules now gave them a fairer shake.
Add in the concerted effort by some on the right to conflate “Black” with “criminal” and the success of voter suppression laws and efforts to limit affirmative action, and you have a new set of problems. Despite that, there has been progress due in great part to the Civil Rights Act.
It’s just not enough progress. White people have to wake up and recognize that the work is unfinished. U.S. history is rife with people deciding something is over and moving on, but the truth is what happened in the past affects who we are today. Looking honestly at slavery is an important part of this work.
But even before we address our history, we white people need to acknowledge that while African Americans suffer the penalties of the racism still present in our society, they aren’t the problem. Individual white racism contributes to the problem, but even that is only a small part of it. It’s the institutions – especially the police and criminal justice system, but also schools, employers, and government agencies – that treat Black people as if they’re going to cause trouble that are the problem. We have to change those institutions.
The events of the last week made a lot of us want to crawl under the covers and hide from the world. I saw a lot of Facebook posts last week that said – essentially – “The world sucks. Here’s a kitten.” I felt that way myself, which is why I haven’t read every detail of the horrific events.
But the problems aren’t going to go away unless we change the policies and indifference that let them happen. We have to pay attention.