Thursday, July 18, 2013

Amid Dramatic Progress, the Basic Issues Remain the Same

Americans who care to express their opinion about recent events would do well to first sit down with a few reputable books on the civil rights movement. Having discarded the mythical version of the civil rights era, the arguments of our time begin to look much clearer and more familiar.

What are we arguing about? We’re arguing about how much progress has been made. Is great progress a ground for declaring victory, or is there a definable goal ahead that we need to strive for? The arguments of conservatives are familiar. Racism is basically dead, they say. Blacks are their own worst enemy, they say. Black culture is a bigger problem than White racism, they say. Don’t provoke more protests, they say. Stay off the streets or it could lead to violence. Stop stirring up racial tensions, they say. All of these arguments are old.

All of these arguments were used during the civil rights movement. But they weren’t used by the movement. They were used by the people opposing the movement. And now they’re being used again. The only difference is that the people now using them have appropriated the civil rights movement as their own. Some of them are surely knowingly cynical in this endeavor. But many of them, I don’t doubt, honestly think their battle for White privilege follows in the footsteps of the battle for Black liberation.

I wish more people could get a better sense of how murky and confusing the events of the 1960s were, just as they are today. It didn't play out as a tidy morality tale in which the right side was obvious. There were difficult questions about violence and group identity and the pace of change. There were always thoroughly American reasons to oppose Black advances. If you generally find yourself unsympathetic to Black concerns today, it is reasonable to assume you would have situated yourself similarly 50 years ago.

It should give us pause to look back in history and see Whites arguing for a more conservative stance on racial justice on precisely the same grounds they do now: progress. Don't push for civil rights, they said in the 1960s, look at the progress that has been made since slavery. Don't push for equality now, they say, look at the progress that has been made since the 1960s. It's so easy for the more powerful group to fixate on progress without ever contemplating how it was achieved: by aggressively pushing against those who said just wait, just be patient. Progress is invoked by conservatives not to spur us on to greater commitments to justice, but to forestall them. It's not hard to understand why. A more racially just world is one in which White people have less power.

Learning some history would definitely help. But it isn’t enough. Whites must stop assuming we have an equal say in these matters. If the debate is about the extent of ongoing racism in America, what makes us think we would know anything about it? If racism isn’t present, we obviously won’t see it. But if it is present, we wouldn’t necessarily see it either. That’s the whole point. Whites are not the ones experiencing the racism.

Why, on this topic in particular, do so many Whites feel the need to aggressively assert their opinions born of their nearly nonexistent experience? Why are Black opinions so suspect? It is as if Whites think we provide some sort of neutral voice on racial questions. In reality, our combination of ignorance and vested interests make us extremely biased. Blacks are biased too of course, but at least they know something of which they speak.

Even conservative whites can sometimes be compelled to admit that Whites as a group have never before in American history been on the right side of racial controversies. But somehow in this generation, they're sure, they've managed to get it right.

Progress has been made. But it remains an open question whether what the civil rights movement fought for -- full equality, the eradication of racial privilege, full participation in American life -- will ever be achieved, or if it is even possible under American institutions that were set up for a White supremacist state.

Some of us try to always keep this ultimate goal in mind. There are others who seem to always find a reason to oppose any concrete effort to get to that goal. There is always an explanation of how it is counterproductive or comes with too many costs. The pressing reality of injustice is put off for fear of interfering with nebulous ideas like "freedom" and "limited government" and "the American way." These nice ideas aren't worth protecting if they don't work for all our citizens. We're over 200 years into this project, and we're still waiting.

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