Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Purposes of Forgetting

Quick! Name a segregationist from the civil rights era.

Anybody come to mind?

Don't feel bad if you couldn't think of one. This is a social critique, not an individual criticism. Now, let's say you did name one. Was it Bull Connor? George Wallace? Strom Thurmond? Ross Barnett? I imagine those names pretty much cover it, if you came up with a name.

Now here's the dirty little secret. None of those guys, with the possible exception of Wallace, were particularly good at defending segregation. Most of them proved to be useful foils, and had they never existed the battle for white supremacy would have played out in much the same way. But to the extent we remember any segregationists, we like to remember those who were incompetent, or buffoonish, or violent, or some combination of the three. Why is that?

As I hinted at in my review of Sweet Land of Liberty, our remembrance and forgetfulness of the civil rights movement carries a purpose of its own. That purpose is to congratulate ourselves on how far we've come. Are our schools as segregated as they were 40 years ago? "Doesn't matter; tell us about Birmingham again." Are isolated enclaves of poverty just as cut off from hope and opportunity as they were? "It's okay, remind us of Selma." Has the wealth gap grown larger? "Don't worry, just tell us again about dogs and fire hoses and freedom riders and the man standing in the schoolhouse door. Then we'll know how far we've come."

We remember the dumb segregationists because we want to believe they were the problem. We don't want to know that defeating them, by itself, solved almost nothing. We don't remember the white racists who were actually good at defending their interests. Men like Richard Russell in the senate, Mayor Daley in Chicago or, for that matter, our presidents. More than that, we don't want to know that the problem went beyond the capacity of individual heart change to fix.

By the middle of the twentieth century, injustice based on race was built into the fabric of our neighborhoods, our economy, and our government. Built. Pretending that it could be uprooted by a change of heart and newfound intention to be nice is like assuming a skyscraper will disappear because we regret building it.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that a majority of white Americans have ever actually cared about doing the work of unbuilding what they had built. We made it through the entire civil rights era without this basic selfishness being challenged. That is why we remember the beatings on the bridge at Selma, and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, and it's why those events galvanized public opinion at the time. The majority of white Americans did not care, and by all appearances still do not, about the quiet, fundamentally unequal share of opportunity that slowly strangled black Americans and silently killed them by the thousands.

A dramatic beating, a bomb. Why, there is something to get upset about! On the other hand, the fact that because of your skin color you have less housing options, poorer education, less fairness from police, less money, less life expectancy, less, less, less -- well, that's just the way things are and haven't you heard it has nothing to do with race?

Because of the indifference of whites, civil rights activists were forced to build their movement on showcase events -- the beatings and mass jailings. But that was a thin reed to build a just society on. It's why the movement faltered every time it encountered smart white authorities who avoided public outrages while quietly protecting the life-killing privileges their white constituents demanded.

I've come to realize that we're still doing the same thing. We're trying to get the majority of white Americans to care, and instead of unapologetically informing them about the basic justice of the cause and seeking to sensitize their social conscience, we are still going out on those thin reeds, seeking a showcase to dramatize an unequal America.

That was what Trayvon Martin was all about. I admit now that I was misguided on that, not because of the case itself but because of what I wanted to use it for. If people are not already outraged and morally stricken by the daily life experience of many of America's poor, a killing in murky circumstances is certainly not going to move them.

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