As a creative director for ad agencies and as a part-time college instructor, I used to teach that social trends and fashions responded like a pendulum with a 360-degree axis. The pendulum freely swings, but never back to exactly the same place twice.
I was reminded of that description while watching the ceremonies marking the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington. In 1963, the US seemed hopelessly racist. In the Jim Crow South, blacks were segregated from whites. African-Americans were denied the right to vote. Peaceful civil rights demonstrators were met with fire hoses, police dogs, beatings and murder.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 began to change that.
In the last two presidential elections, African-Americans voted in record numbers helping to elect the first US president of African-American heritage. (I’ve always marveled that his Irish-American heritage is seldom mentioned because of the color of his skin.)
Obviously, the pendulum has swung a long way from 1963. But it seems to be swinging back.
Since the election of President Obama, numerous states in both the North and the South have passed restrictive voting laws to make it more difficult for minorities to vote. No other US president has been subjected to such angry derision. No other president has been repeatedly asked to show his papers to prove that he is a citizen. No other president has been interrupted during a State of the Union speech by a “Congressman” calling him a liar. No other president has been met by such congressional obstruction.
Racism did not disappear in the sixties. It is just more subtle. There are fewer racist killings, beatings and other hate crimes. Today, the racism is economic and institutionalized. Unemployment for African-Americans is roughly double that for whites. Many of those who do have jobs are not paid a living wage. Schools in African-American communities are grossly underfunded compared to those in white communities. African-Americans are not only three times more likely to be arrested as whites, they receive longer sentences for similar crimes.
Indeed, young African-American and Latino males are seen as a source of profit for the private prison industry. They are also disproportionately represented in our military and asked to fight wars to protect the economic interests of large corporations that are almost exclusively owned and managed by wealthy white Americans.
News organizations, once again, insert race into stories of crime. Media commentators feel comfortable talking about the disintegration of African-American families while ignoring the disintegration of white families. When minorities bring up discrimination and other issues of race, white political pundits refer to it as “playing the race card.” They would like us to believe that racism no longer exists. (Of course, it doesn’t for them.)
Most disturbing is the fact that the conservative majority of the United States Supreme Court has voted to weaken the Voting Rights Act and to undermine affirmative action.
On the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, we should all take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come. But only a moment. It’s time to get back to work to make sure the pendulum swings in the right direction again.