It's been years since racism's most common manifestations were overt—in 2013, the charge of racism is still most commonly identified with people like Paula Deen, and it's easy to dissociate oneself with someone who resembles a Daughter of the Confederacy, wistful for the days when black employees could be asked to wear butlers' attire while being called the N-word, without a hint of backlash.
But most recipients of racist practice have long understood that the most insidious and damaging cases are covert—so covert, in fact, that they can be easily denied. Recently, much has been made of the idea that racial bias has become so implicit that most people who impose their prejudices are blissfully unaware that they're doing so.
The 1963 March on Washington was organized in a time of overt racism. This year's 50th anniversary events commemorating that march were performed in an age of implicit bias. It's difficult to attack a terror that will no longer allow itself to be named by marching one mile around the seat of a government that willingly perpetuates that terror. But organizers and participants did exactly that this week, aiming to regain some of the steam of a generation for which racism was a foghorn not a dog whistle.
As a child of the eighties, born at the tail end of 1979, just 15 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, I've never learned to feel at ease in this country. Even as I grew up in predominantly black communities where racial tension often lay dormant, I understood its presence as a low-humming undercurrent.
During my childhood, the March on Washington was usually cited as a dividing line: Before it, there was Jim Crow; after it, legal acts of segregation and discrimination were no more. It is true that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a benchmark in American history. And certainly, the March was integral in the passing of that legislation. But too often, we walk away from wistful discussions of that fateful event believing its gains have been permanent and undefiled.
Perhaps it becomes easier to critically consider the civil-rights movement of the 1960s with the buffer of a few decades—especially if during those decades we’ve witnessed the ways in which civil-rights legislation can be manipulated, still allowing for segregation, discrimination, wage inequities, and unequal opportunities.
But it isn’t distance that makes it difficult to view the 1963 march as some panacea that irrevocably revolutionized racial relations. It’s proximity, close proximity.
The tension I experienced as a low hum years ago is audible to everyone now. From the gutting of the Voting Rights Act earlier this summer to the increasingly precarious protection of women's reproductive rights in many states to marriage inequality and the denial that public school closings in low-income, predominantly black areas are a civil-rights violation, racial injustice can no longer be ignored or denied.
Our responses to these systemic inequities have necessarily changed in recent decades. Though public protests and vigils haven't disappeared completely, our expectations of them have. We understand from the experiences of our elders that, even if civic unrest can result in the holding a special legislative session or the repeal of an unjust law, they are not a curative.
A march will not help us challenge a hirer, for instance, who cannot or will not acknowledge that his refusal to interview an applicant with an ethnic name makes him complicit in upholding the racial wage gap. A sit-in, even if it results in the passing of the brilliant Trayvon's Law for which the Dream Defenders have lobbied in Florida, will not prevent an implicitly biased gun-wielder from viewing an unarmed person of color as a palpable threat.
Even so, lawful protest often feels like the best weapon against injustice we have. It emboldens citizens of a democracy to continue believing they have agency in protecting their own freedoms. As this summer's protests in North Carolina, Florida, Texas and elsewhere have taught us, direct action still has great value. But perhaps, in this day and age, its focus shouldn't be just on legislative change. Perhaps today, "speaking truth to power" also means turning to the person protesting beside you and simply holding a conversation that challenges assumptions so deeply held that they implicitly uphold a racist status quo.