I went to a church service last night. A memorial service of sorts on the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March. The church is a small AME congregation. Mostly black. It is located in a rural farming belt and its members are mostly farmers or in businesses related to farming. The minister, part time, as he is a farmer too, spoke passionately of the zeal of those protestors who stood up against injustice and of the cause that they lifted up. BUT, he also challenged the congregation to cast a critical eye on what has happened to the African American community, what damage has been done from within that community, and how his congregation stood apart from that. I looked about and realized that what he was referring to was a membership that is solidly middle class, hard working, property owning, educated, and from families that are stable. His question: “How do we make our experience, the norm for our brothers and sisters throughout this great land?”
The very conservative”Front Page Magazine” is not one I cite often but I recalled an article from more than a decade ago that seem worth noting today as some in the nation recall Selma and its place in the Civil Rights Struggle. It provided me with a firmer footing in the thinking from the good Reverend last night. I also recalled another article from “The Nation”, a very progressive publication, that addressed the return of overt racial politics.
I thought that excerpts from both might be of value today.
by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 18, 2000
The authors are senior fellows at the Conservative Manhattan Institute
Abigail Thernstrom, an American political scientist, academic and writer, is a former Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York, a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, and vice chair of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She received her Ph.D. from the Department of Government, Harvard University, in 1975. She is a Republican.
Stephan Thernstrom (born November 5, 1934) is the Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University. and was the editor of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups.
Thernstrom was born and raised in Port Huron, Michigan. His father was the son of a Swedish-born immigrant laborer. His family later moved to Battle Creek, Michigan. Thernstrom received his bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University and his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Too often the nation’s gaze is fixed on the rearview mirror, and it offers a distorted view. African-Americans appear as permanent victims; racism seems ubiquitous. But in the heyday of the civil-rights movement, those who fought for racial equality were optimists.
That optimism seemed vindicated by events: the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. As Bayard Rustin, a close advisor to Dr. King, noted at the time, the “legal foundations of racism in America” had been “destroyed” with dizzying speed. It was also in 1965 that the U.S. abandoned the discriminatory national-origins quotas that had governed immigration law since the 1920s. The notion that only immigrants from Britain or Germany would make good Americans lost support in an increasingly tolerant and cosmopolitan America.
Immigration reform and landmark civil-rights legislation rested on a central moral principle: It is wrong to judge Americans on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, or national origin. Dr. King dreamed of the day when Americans would be judged by the “content of their character,” not “the color of their skin.” And President John F. Kennedy invoked this core principle in supporting the passage of a civil-rights bill that would demonstrate the nation’s commitment to “the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.”
The clarity of this moral vision was lost in the turbulent and chaotic 1960s. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson took the first step in a radically different direction. For a people “hobbled by chains,” he said, opening “the gates of opportunity” would not suffice. A grievously damaged people were entitled to compete under different rules. The term affirmative action wasn’t invented until later, but racial preference was implicit in LBJ’s rhetoric. The urban riots that erupted only three months after his address seemed to underscore the need for race-conscious measures to ensure, as Johnson put it, “equality as a fact.”
The riots came to an end in 1968, disappearing as mysteriously as they had appeared. It’s still hard to say what caused them, but the Kerner Commission—appointed by Johnson—confidently offered an explanation that was a sweeping indictment of American society. Its report portrayed America in stark—literally black-and-white—terms. The American drama was a play with only two characters: bigoted whites and victimized blacks. The riots were the natural and inevitable protest against “the racial attitudes and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans.”
As an analysis of what triggered the ghetto riots, the report was useless. Increasing inequality could not have been the explanation; by every conceivable measure the status of African-Americans had improved. Of course, blacks were still more likely than whites to live in poverty and suffer from higher unemployment, but those conditions were just as pervasive in cities that didn’t riot.
Despite these and other glaring flaws, the Kerner Commission report has had a remarkable life. Just last month the attorney general of Massachusetts looked at statewide school test results and recalled the Kerner Commission’s “pessimistic conclusion that our nation ‘was moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.’ ” Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, recently insisted that the report’s “indictment of white America” is still sound.
The report of President Clinton’s Race Advisory Board, chaired by John Hope Franklin, was a warmed-over version of the Kerner findings. New demographics compelled the authors to acknowledge the large and rapidly growing presence of Asians and Hispanics, though they did so largely by conflating the experience of all “people of color.” The U.S., said the report, is still governed by an oppressive “system of racial hierarchy” in which whites hold all the power, and members of “every minority group” face “significant barriers to opportunity.” It went on to say that “racial and ethnic oppression … persist,” and that “racial stereotypes” and “racist concepts” abound, as ugly and primitive as ever. No area of life is free of “subtle biases.”
White racism was ubiquitous just a few decades ago, and it hasn’t entirely disappeared. But the past is not the present. We’ve been moving forward, and much of the territory that now surrounds us is unfamiliar. The rise in intermarriage rates mean the categories themselves—white, black, Asian, Hispanic—are dissolving. But Mr. Jackson, the NAACP, and their friends in the university, corporate, and media worlds remain fanatically committed to the “racial hierarchy” mindset. They profit from it, getting headlines and watching television networks grovel. But their message—that the struggle against “oppression” has not changed since the 1960s—blinds the public to new realities, inhibits black progress, and erodes white goodwill. In fact, it is perhaps the single biggest obstacle to fully realizing Dr. King’s magnificent dream.
Let me add….in the years since 2000 the use of the racial divide that the authors of this article note has found a home among conservatives as well. This 2012 article from Katrina vanden Heuvel‘s “The Nation” address that phenomenon. The author, Eric Alterman, is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC
The GOP panders to racists, and liberals are blamed for a “neurotic” obsession with race
Does Barack Obama look like a “skinny ghetto crackhead” to you? Did Whitney Houston’s death inspire the thought that Representative Maxine Waters needs to “step away from the crack pipe?” If so, then Fox is the cable network for you. (The quotes belong to Media Research Center president Brent Bozell and Fox News host Eric Bolling, respectively.) But if you prefer your news by radio, then perhaps you’d best stick with Rush Limbaugh, who explains that President Obama “talks honky” around white folk, while his wife feels entitled to abuse public funds as payback for centuries of white oppression of black people. And finally, if you like your racism live and in person, then no doubt you would have been right at home at the recent CPAC convention, where Ann Coulter told the assembled crowd, “Voters with forty years of politically correct education are ecstatic to have the first black president. They just love the idea of it, even if we did get Flavor Flav instead of Thomas Sowell.”…….
It has become a depressing ritual of American politics that when one is confronted with evidence of one’s racism, the proper response is to insist that while old-fashioned Bull Connor–style racism has disappeared, liberals and journalists—and rarely is any distinction made here—remain obsessed with this now-imaginary phenomenon as a means of persecuting conservatives for telling it like it is. For instance, Coulter insists that “liberals and white supremacists are the only people left in America who are neurotically obsessed with race.” Bozell complains of the alleged (Clarence Thomas–style) “high-tech lynching” of Herman Cain by those who accurately reported what the former candidate actually said and did. And, um, ditto Limbaugh, who responded to the same reporting and commentary of Cain’s actions by knowingly explaining that it “tells us who the real racists are.”
In 2005 then–RNC chair Ken Mehlman, speaking to the NAACP, admitted that during the civil rights movement “some Republicans…[were] trying to benefit politically from racial polarization,” and apologized. But if William Faulkner were alive today, he could tell Mehlman that, sadly, in this regard, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even the past.