Going Beyond Protest

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. 

Comments

Yes we need to go out and make friends with those protesting who are like us. But the powers aligned with the racist red states are far more powerful today. The Supreme Court 5 who overturned the voting rights act are Catholics mostly from the north. They would have been opposed to segregation in the south in the 1960's. Now they are puppets for their billionaire, multi-national corporate sponsors. The little white supremacists keep breeding because fascism always looked good from a distance. Those medals and uniforms not to mention the powerful guns. But they are run by those who have taken over the world systematically looting it of natural resources and off-shoring US jobs for generations. They believe their capture of the government is complete. When it is easier to buy a gun that vote, we know we no longer live in a democracy.

The issue today is less about race than class. Interestingly, Dr. King actually pointed this out, and it was this very point that scared the crap out of middle class America. He stressed that while blacks were disproportionately poor, the majority of our poor were (are) white. We should also note that the great majority of our poor are women. Corporations don't care about the color of the people they can exploit. This, Dr. King stressed, was why the poor of all races need to understand that they're in the same sinking boat, and unite to push back.

Slavery in the United States began soon after English colonists first settled Virginia and lasted until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865. By the 18th century, court rulings established the racial basis of the American version of slavery to apply chiefly to Black Africans and people of African descent, and occasionally to Native Americans. The 19th century saw a hardening of institutionalized racism and legal discrimination against citizens of African descent in the United States. Although technically able to vote, poll taxes, acts of terror (often perpetuated by groups such as the KKK), and discriminatory laws kept black Americans disenfranchised particularly in the South.

Racism in the United States was worse during this time than at any period before or since. Segregation, racial discrimination, and expressions of white supremacy all increased. So did anti-black violence, including lynchings and race riots.

In addition, racism which had been viewed primarily as a problem in the Southern states, burst onto the national consciousness following the Great Migration, the relocation of millions of African Americans from their roots in the Southern states to the industrial centers of the North after World War I, particularly in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York (Harlem). In northern cities, racial tensions exploded, most violently in Chicago, and lynchings - racially motivated mob-directed hangings - increased dramatically in the 1920s.
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