So Far, and Not So Far

Hegel’s Dialectic. Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. Social revolution begets counterrevolution. Their struggle begets a new reality with elements of both. Southern Man begets Sweet Home Alabama. Warren Zevon brings it forward with Play It All Night Long.

The Civil Rights movement begat white backlash, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and “reverse discrimination.”

It was an ugly time.

Young white men, one spearing a flagpole with the American flag, attack a black man as he crosses City Hall Plaza.  Stanley Forman’s shocking, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 picture, The Soiling of Old Glory, captured the turmoil of Boston’s school desegregation.

It is merely one of the literally countless shocking images from this country’s history of racial conflict. 1974: 109 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War, 106 years after ratification of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, 20 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, 19 years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, 10 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 9 years after the Watts riots in L.A., 7 years after rioting in Detroit, Newark, and dozens of other U.S. cities, 7 years after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional laws banning miscegenation (mixed race marriages), 6 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. 1974: 18 years before the Rodney King riots in L.A., 40 years before Ferguson, 41 years before the deaths of Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, and many others. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

How one thinks about U.S. race relations usually turns on where one sits. I have lived in Boston since 1971. The psychic toll of court-ordered busing, and the racial tension of the 1970’s and 1980’s, are ancient history for white, suburban, professionals like me. I live in subjective ignorance of what daily life is like for a person of color. Or, obviously, for a woman, or a Muslim, or an LGBT person, or an Asian, or an undocumented immigrant, or anyone else who confronts legal, social, or attitudinal hurdles with which I don’t contend.2

Today, Half of America Thinks We Live in a Post-Racial Society . . . It is undeniable that outward racism is less socially acceptable than it was a half century ago. Consider 42-The Jackie Robinson Story, about Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947.

Consider others with similar themes: Remember the Titans (integration in 1971 of a high school football team in Alexandria, VA), The Great Debaters (all-black Wiley College debate team takes on the Harvard debate team in the 1930s), and The Help (sympathetic white writer explores the lives of domestic help in 1960’s Mississippi). Their depictions of casual, blatant racism shock modern audiences. That’s good. Such overt racism, and use of the “N word” (putting aside the complex norms governing its usage by black speakers or in aspects of popular culture) are not tolerated in mass media and most civil conversation. The shock of the unfamiliar in such films might make one believe racism is, at most, a small problem: things are so much better today. Or, the shock might make one believe racism is hidden and more subtle today. Is subtle racism better, or worse, than overt racism? Yes—it’s both better, and worse. It’s less in one’s face, but it continues to limit choices and opportunities, and to tarnish everyone it touches.

  1. The headline continues  “. . . the Other Half, Not so Much.”
  2. Which, some say, includes everyone who is not a white, heterosexual, economically secure male.