Friday, March 6, 2015

Selma is Now. No, not Really.

Some perspective from James B. LaGrand:

[I]n his acceptance remarks after winning the Oscar for Best Original Song, co-writer John Legend again connected past and present. He tried to set straight any viewers who might be thinking that 1965 was a long time ago. “Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now.”
Statements similar to Legend’s “Selma is now” have been made many times in the months since Michael Brown’s tragic death at the hands of policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, Ferguson has become a Rorschach test – not just on the state of race relations today, but on the past as well through the power of historical analogy. Like John Legend, congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis has compared Ferguson to Selma in 1965. On college campuses, analogies comparing Ferguson to 1950s Little Rock and Michael Brown to Emmett Till have been heard.
These statements and actions are all rooted in the belief that little to nothing has changed in race relations from the Jim Crow era of the 1890s-1950s to the present day. If one of the tasks of History is to assess the complex relationship between change and continuity over time, these voices suggest that on the issue of race and race relations, the answer is pretty simple. 2014 = 1965 or 1955 or the 1890s.
But in looking at the past, it’s hard to make these claims hold up. The Jim Crow era stands as a distinctly grim, brutal period in America’s history for its Black citizens. After the end of Reconstruction, Black men who had recently won the franchise had it effectively taken away. The promise that Black Americans would own the product of their labor too became a bitter lie. All public spaces in the Jim Crow South became divided by the color line.
This racial code was enforced through lynchings and other forms of brutal violence. The Equal Justice Initiative has recently documented 3,959 African-Americans lynched between 1877 and 1950. Lynch mobs cast a wide net. They targeted Black men accused of crimes, those accused or suspected of sexual relations with white women, and those seen as being “impudent to white man,” in the words of one lynching record. Lynchings were barbaric, often involving the ritualistic burning and dismemberment of dead bodies. Not for nothing do many historians refer to 1890-1920 as the nadir of African-American history
They see their motives are earnest. By their way of thinking, a continued insistence that little to nothing has changed in race relations will hold white Americans’ feet to the fire. This approach will confront and challenge them, and prevent them from becoming prideful or complacent. Some teachers and administrators on college campuses say that a focus on continuity in race relations will allow for “teaching opportunities.”
But what if such a determined focus on racial continuity from the 1890s to today doesn’t bring about these results? The discipline of History is based on a reasonable confidence about concrete, particular things, not just a fuzzy mood or spirit. Activists who tout continuity believe that their cause will result in “consciousness-raising” about a range of racial issues. But it’s just as likely to lead to cynicism and disengagement if it’s thought that events have been manipulated and comparisons over-drawn.

Read the rest here.

It's also worth noting that, as the NY Times mentions, in the decade between 2000-2010 more black Africans have voluntarily come to the U.S. "than were imported directly to North America during the more than three centuries of the slave trade."

"We've come long way, baby."  Are there still racists in the U.S.?  Of course, as there are in every country.  But how racist is the U.S.?  Adam Carolla thinks, not that racist:

"We shall be rid of the last vestiges of Goldsteinism when the language has been cleaned."

Fortunately (or unfortunately), activists will never be out of a job.

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