It now appears likely that I will be part of the first generation of Black people to do worse than my parents and leave a crueler world for my children than the one I inherited.
When I say “worse,” I don’t mean by a metric of homes owned or acres plowed or yachts docked or whatever measure white people mean when they bemoan doing worse than their parents. In fact, I’m doing better than my parents economically, as are a visible minority of Black people my age (I’m 43). Instead, I mean that I inherited a legacy of civil rights, a stone of freedom each Black generation since emancipation has pushed relentlessly through peaks and valleys towards the summit of equality, but mine will be the first generation to lose more ground than we’ve gained. We will leave our kids further from the promised land than our parents left us.
White Americans my age are one step removed from their “Greatest Generation.” It was their grandparents who went to Europe to fight the Nazis and then returned and settled right back into the apartheid system that was well-established here. The Black civil rights generation, our greatest generation, fought those forces of fascism and white supremacy here, on the home front, several years later, and in so doing forced America to live up to its empty promises of freedom and equality for all.
Thanks to their efforts, my generation was born into more opportunity than any generation of Black folks in the history of the New World. We haven’t squandered it. My Black generation has enjoyed unprecedented social and cultural influence. Some of us have achieved wild economic success. We even got to see the very first Black president. If you start the clock in April 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, you’ll see that Black Americans have accomplished one of the most successful nonviolent political and social revolutions in human history.
But my generation has not been the cause of those victories, merely the beneficiaries of our parents’ and grandparents’ successes. Even Barack Obama understood that. When he met Ruby Bridges, the woman who, at the age of 6, integrated the first elementary school in Louisiana, Obama said, “I think it’s fair to say that if it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Maybe that’s why white people are trying to ban Bridges’s story today. A new Tennessee law bars the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. While there is, obviously, no such teaching going on in Tennessee public schools—Critical Race Theory is, for the 1,000th time, an academic legal discipline—the white parents pushing this know what they’re after. They highlighted four books they wanted taken out of the Tennessee curriculum; Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, by Ruby Bridges, was one of them.
Bridges’s generation made Obama possible. My generation has lived to see white people try to erase those gains.
And those white people are winning. I know they are. I could see them winning when I saw the tears streaming down my mother’s face as I tried to explain to her the Supreme Court’s latest decision on voting rights. My mother was born in 1950 in Mississippi. She used to have to wait outside her town’s only public library for nice white people to bring her books, since she wasn’t allowed inside. She marched and wrote and was the “first Black” to do literally everything she did in her career. She says she fought those battles so I wouldn’t have to, and for the most part I didn’t. By the time I got to college, I was pretty sure we were just a few economic empowerment zones and a legalized marijuana law away from being forever free.
Now, closer to the end of her life than to the start, she has to watch as white people roll back the clock and erect hurdles for her grandchildren that she thought were long vanquished. White people aren’t just trying to erase the gains of the civil rights era from our voting system or support the state-sponsored terrorism and violence that has always threatened Black bodies—they’re trying to erase the civil rights era’s accomplishments from the national conscience through their constant attacks on “woke” culture and resistance to an accurate telling of American history.
I can scarcely appreciate what my mom and countless Black people her age are going through, but I doubt that most white people can even imagine it. The Voting Rights Act is arguably the most important piece of legislation in American history: It’s the first law that made real the promises of the 15th Amendment, and thus the first law that extended the full measure of citizenship to Black people in a supposedly democratic system of government. It was the silver bullet of the civil rights movement. Voting rights were supposed to make it impossible for future cabals of white supremacists to take away the gains of the era.
Yet, over the past eight years, that most critical law has been gutted by the Supreme Court. Our one unelected branch of government has taken away the key thing put in place to keep the elected branches from sliding back into the whites’-only rule that plagued the first 150 years of the American experiment. There’s no white American equivalent to the Voting Rights Act. There’s no thing we can weaken or take away from white people that would threaten their ability to participate in self-government.
My Black generation is doing everything we can think of to stop this. Our activists have used every tool available to start entire movements, like Black Lives Matter, to halt this onslaught of white rage. Our thinkers and writers are on fire: People like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, and so many others, are producing the works that leave the white supremacists so unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas that their only resort is to try to ban these Black intellectuals from the marketplace. Black voting power is so strong and energized that white Republicans have decided to turn their backs on democracy all together. We are fighting.
But we are also losing, primarily because the mass of white Americans has become inured to shame. Just look at where we are with police brutality. The pervasiveness of the camera phone has, finally, shown white people the police brutality Black people have always endured. White people now can see with their own eyes what really happens when we are stopped for “driving while Black.” They can assess with moving pictures the difference in how police respond to groups of Black protesters versus how they respond to mobs of white insurrectionists.
But white people still have a stranglehold on national political power in this country, and they are unmoved. Despite all the protest and activism my generation can muster, despite the occasional big speech from a Democratic president, there is no bevy of new civil rights legislation. The few laws that have been proposed have been blocked by Republicans. The most concerted legislative reaction to protests after the death of George Floyd was the Republican effort in a number of state legislatures to make it legal to run over Black protesters. My parents braved dogs to protest for their rights—my kids will have to brave SUVs when it’s their turn to do the same.
It’s no coincidence that the most vicious attacks on Black equality come down at the state level, as “states’ rights” has always been the battle cry of the racists. And this is where my generation has failed to take the next step, I think: in our failure to turn our activism and political success at the local level into gains at the statehouse and within state legislatures.
Here is the full list of our current Black governors:…
No, I’m not missing anybody. We are at zero right now. Now here is the exhaustive list of all Black people elected governor in US history:
- Douglas Wilder: Virginia, 1990–94
- Deval Patrick: Massachusetts, 2007–15
Of course, there should be more. Stacey Abrams would have been the first Black woman governor, if white people hadn’t stolen the election from her. And she might still be. Her career is far from over.
Abrams, 47, represents the best my generation has to offer. She’s every bit the equal of the civil rights heroes that came before her, and she’s doing all my generation can right now: holding the line. We’re not trying to advance rights so much as we’re trying to prevent white people from taking away rights we’ve already won. We’re fighting with both hands to hang on, to preserve what we can until the cavalry arrives, until the browning majority of the country demands representation, until the Boomers die off, until the younger generations can straight up out-vote them, until something breaks the current white supremacist fever sweeping across the land.
If we can hold, maybe our kids can fight the battles we could not win. But that is cold comfort. My 8-year-old told me he wants to be a “scientist.” I told him that Albert Einstein’s greatest insight was recognizing when to get out of Nazi Germany before the fascists could kill him (and having enough star power to do what most other Jews could not), and that he might have to flee America one day too. Half of the time, I feel like my parenting inspiration is Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. I’m training my kids to survive post-democracy and post–climate disaster America as opposed to figuring out myself how to avoid it.
It’s a sad inversion of what my mother said to me. She fought so I wouldn’t have to. I fight so my kids have the opportunity to fight. The dream where our Black children don’t have to fight for their equality and dignity under the law will have to be deferred, for another generation at least.