THE NATION CLASSROOM
American History as It Happened
RACE RELATIONS and CIVIL RIGHTS
MODULE EIGHT: 1991-Present
On March 3 last year, the Los Angeles police unmercifully beat a black man, Rodney King, who had been stopped for speeding, and shot him with darts from a nonlethal gun called a taser, which is supposed to be used to catch fleeing suspects. Fortuitously videotaped by a bystander, the beating was memorably broadcast on television all over this country and abroad. The resulting furor, including a condemnation of the beating by President Bush, focused unprecedented attention on violence by local police forces. Ten days after the attack, then-Attorney General Dick Thornburgh asked his staff to review past complaints about police brutality “to discern whether any pattern of misconduct is apparent.”
A year later, the federal government still has no clear idea of the answer to that question. Although a blue-ribbon commission in Los Angeles later found a pattern of such abuses in the L.A.P.D., the question has sunk out of sight as a national issue. Was such a police beating common or rare? Are such incidents declining in the nation? Is the L.A.P.D. particularly brutal compared with other local police forces? Are there some accepted measures that could be taken to reduce such police violence?
Two marches came to Washington on October 16. The event on the podium—speeches by the Million Man March’s organizers and would-be leaders—naturally caught the media’s attention. But the day’s long-term significance should more properly be sought in the other march, below the stage, where a mass came together and recognized Itself.
Most of the people were there not to embrace Louis Farrakhan or any other leader but to affirm that they were not what “they” say. “We are projected as less intelligent than we are, less hard-working than we work, less universal than we are, less patriotic than we are and more violent than we are,” Jesse Jackson said. Indeed, the courteous and celebratory mood of the crowd was a direct rebuke to the white Washingtonians who stayed away from their workday routines in fear. “I didn’t come 535 miles for violence,” said Troy Heard, a 29-year-old from Detroit’s East Side, who had slept overnight in his car with his nephew so he could be there. “We want to prove everybody wrong who predicted violence.”
In 1958, 53 percent of voters said they would not vote for a black candidate for President; in 1984 it was 16 percent; by 2003 it was 6 percent. Herein lies one substantial fact that is remolding the nature of black politics and the opportunities for black politicians—white people have become a viable electoral constituency for black candidates. According to a Washington Post /ABC News poll early this year, a candidate’s being over 72, a Mormon or twice divorced are all greater issues for voters than race.
There is, of course, the very real chance that they are lying. In the past white voters have told pollsters that they were happier about voting for black candidates than they actually were, leaving the vote for black candidates about five points less than predicted. This was once known as the Bradley effect, after the 1982 gubernatorial candidacy of black Democratic candidate Tom Bradley in California.
On November 4, the voters gave a resounding, nearly deafening answer to the needling question of pundits who have spent the past two years asking, Is America ready for a black President? Yes, it is. Of course, it is possible to overstate the significance of this moment for the condition of black Americans. But it is not possible to overstate its sweetness—and the pure, unadulterated joy that has come from tasting it…
Of the some 40 million white Americans who voted for Barack Obama, many no doubt set aside their racial prejudices for the sake of their economic future; many others, however, actively chose to renounce them, and the youngest cohort of voters, who voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, showed they are accustomed to and enthusiastic about a genuinely multiracial society in a way no previous generation has been.
This election certainly doesn’t mean racism is dead. Obama was an extraordinary candidate with enormous political talents running in a climate warm to Democrats, against the candidate of a party whose incumbent president boasts an approval rating of less than 20 percent, the lowest ever recorded of any American president. Those were Obama’s built-in advantages. His blackness (and his “funny name”) was something he had to overcome, and he did so brilliantly. In the end, his unique promise of racial reconciliation—from a man whose very existence, whose very blood, testifies to its possibility—worked.
When Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States, African-Americans became the solution instead of the problem. For many black folks, Obama’s victory has momentarily healed the double consciousness that is an ordinary part of our lives. To be a citizen in a democracy is to be not only the ruled but also the ruler, to not only submit to law but to craft it, to not only die for your country but to live fully in it. In this moment, we are citizens. We the people, who tilled the soil and cleared the forests and harvested the crops for no compensation. We the people, who endured the abortion of Reconstruction and carried the weight of Jim Crow. We the people, who swung from Southern trees and stood on the front lines of foreign wars. We the people, who taught our children to read even when the schools had no books We the people, who worshipped a God of liberation even as we suffered oppression. We the people, who gave America back its highest ideals with our nonviolent struggle against injustice. We the people are now Americans.
Barack Obama’s presidency will not deal a death blow to racism. Racial inequality still affects the quality of the air we breathe, the quality of our health, the likelihood of being erroneously shot by police, the likelihood of being poor, of having little education and of being unemployed. Race is sticky and racism is real. Being black will still mean living poorer and dying younger.
Obama does not free us of these burdens, but he does offer a new possibility for America’s future… We have a long way to go before we get anywhere near that more perfect union that Obama imagined in Philadelphia, but the work has begun in earnest.
Dylann Roof, the accused murderer of nine men and women in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is clearly a disturbed individual. Yet the language he drew on to justify his crime demonstrates the enduring power of historical myths and memories. Before opening fire on his victims, Roof reportedly explained his actions by saying, “You are raping our women and taking over the country.” This supposed need to save white women from black rapists has deep historical roots. It was invoked to legitimate the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, the nation’s first experiment in interracial democracy. Black victims of lynching in South Carolina and elsewhere were often described as rapists, even though, as the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells pointed out, in nearly every case the accusation was a “bare lie.”
A new institution, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture… opened its doors to introduce a new and powerful narrative among the city’s tourist attractions.
…Historians of the African-American experience agree that the most recent and cutting-edge scholarship informs the carefully mounted exhibits. The curators were extraordinarily thoughtful with the work they put into each display, and a meticulous consideration of gender is perhaps one of the most shining accomplishments here. Unlike many other sites of historical memory, this museum doesn’t focus solely on the lives of great men; it also tells the stories of women and children, allowing everyone who comes here to feel intimately connected.
…The museum is filled with items… that symbolize and lay bare the complex and painful experiences of black people in America…The descriptions here of the Atlantic slave trade are sobering, at best, and while its significance was appreciated by the eighth-grade visitors, they were more comfortable in other parts of the museum….Interactive exhibits on the contributions of black people to popular culture, student activism, and sports were popular with younger visitors, many of whom could make direct connections to the faces and success stories of Jackie Robinson, Oprah Winfrey, and Gabby Douglas.
[This museum] doesn’t just teach black history; instead, it explains how that history has profoundly shaped the American experience. Perhaps now more than ever, it will be seen as a safe space on Washington’s National Mall, a space in which the history of black people is studied, respected, and celebrated. It’s a museum that will force Americans to look at their past, to see their present, and—hopefully—to reimagine their future.
On the day of [George] Zimmerman’s acquittal, a Bay Area activist by the name of Alicia Garza took to Facebook. “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter,” she wrote… The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson may have been the national tipping point, the moment when Americans were jolted awake by this new rallying cry. But it was Garza and her fellow activists, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, who helped popularize the phrase as a hashtag on Twitter and Tumblr one year earlier.
Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery…traces the movement’s origins to the hope of a “postracial” America that was symbolized by Barack Obama’s election… Having once hoped that the election of the first black president meant that the tide of race relations in America might begin to turn, many young black Americans were forced to face the reality—by one high-profile police shooting after another—that living in a world in which they’re treated like their white contemporaries remains an impossibility.
…But while Black Lives Matter arose in a moment of disappointment and grief, it has for the past four years also helped to inaugurate a new era in the struggle for racial justice.