|Articles, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United States on 2014-04-21 17:22Z by Steven|
Despite the legacy of civil rights, some doors remain firmly closed. And across the US, schools are resegregating
At the march on Washington in August 1963, where Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream speech”, the United States Information Agency, the nation’s propaganda wing devoted to “public diplomacy”, made a documentary. It wanted to make sure that the largest demonstration in the history of the US capital, demanding jobs and freedom and denouncing racism, was not misconstrued by the nation’s enemies or potential allies. Their aim was to show the newly independent former colonies that the US embraced peaceful protest. “Smile,” they called to demonstrators as the camera rolled. “This is going to Africa.”
“So it happened,” Michael Thelwell, a grassroots activist, told the author Charles Euchner, “that Negro students from the south, some of whom still had unhealed bruises from the electric cattle prods which southern police used to break up demonstrations, were recorded for the screens of the world portraying ‘American democracy at work’.”
The US’s capacity to fold the stories of resistance to its historic inequities into the broader narrative of its unrelenting journey towards social progress is both brazen and remarkable. (Arguably, this is preferable to the European tradition of burying such histories and hoping no one will ever find them.) Tales of the barriers that come down are woven neatly into the fabric of a nation, where each year is better than the last; the obstacles that remain are discarded as immaterial. What is left is a mythology cut from whole cloth…
…The freedoms this legacy bequeathed should be neither denied nor denigrated. The signs came down, space was created, opinions evolved. Recent years have shown a big increase in minorities moving to suburbs and all groups entering mixed-race relationships. It is a different and better country because of them. But nor should those freedoms be exaggerated. It is not as different or as improved a country as some would have us believe. For as some doors opened, others remained firmly closed – providing two main lessons that challenge the mainstream framing of this era’s legacy.
First, racial integration sits quite easily alongside inequality and discrimination. The legal right of people to mix does not inevitably change the power relationship between them. The former confederacy was, in many ways, the most racially integrated part of the US. There were high rates of miscegenation (forced and voluntary); slaves and servants raised white children and often lived in close quarters with their owners. Strom Thurmond, who ran for the presidency in 1948 as a segregationist, fathered a black daughter by a maid in 1924. The issue was never whether people mixed but on what basis and to what end.
“The issue for black people was never integration or segregation but white supremacy,” explains the University of Chicago professor Charles Payne. “The paradigm of integration and segregation was a white concern … That was how they posed the issue of civil rights, given their own interests, and that was how the entire issue then became understood. But the central concerns of black people were not whether they should integrate with white people or not but how to challenge white people’s hold on the power structure.”…
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