It’s Happening Again
History happens in slow motion. We look back in time, and see events compressed into clearly demarcated eras. But in real time, history unfolds like the proverbial (and false) frog boiling in the pot: so slow you almost don’t notice.
I’m not talking about frogs. I’m talking racism (again–why can’t I confine myself to fond memories of grasshoppers balancing on black-topped weeds or the best way to make grilled cheese in an iron skillet? Stubborn, I guess.)
History via My Shirt
I bought my Black Lives Matter t-shirt five years ago in 2016. That year, protests against police brutality shut down the Memphis bridge. Three years before that, an American jury had acquitted the vigilante killer of Trayvon Martin and #BlackLivesMatter launched. Two years earlier Michael Brown had cried, “I can’t breath.” One year earlier, the mass murder at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston took place, I wrote in support of #BLM, and I wrote about the foundational role of racism in the founding of America. Two months after the Memphis protest, Colin Kaepernick took a knee at an NFL preseason game (and also pledged $1million to social justice causes, a pledge he made good on.) When I bought my shirt in 2016, the backlash against Black Lives Matter had not reached the point where white people yelled at me for wearing it.
They do now.
Last summer, after the horrific murder of George Floyd, protests against police violence swelled. Those protests led to some change. Most of it—in 2020, for God’s sake—centered on finally removing Lost Cause monuments, including adopting a Mississippi flag without Confederate iconography. But what it mostly birthed was resistance. Massive resistance, as we have called it in our American past.
To understand massive resistance, consider Reconstruction after the Civil War.
During Reconstruction, Congress passed reforms to give African Americans rights. The United States Supreme Court repeatedly struck down those reforms until finally Black America was strapped into the straitjacket of Jim Crow. Policed by former Confederates, judged by all-white juries, and violently barred from the polls. White rule was cemented.
Or consider what happened when the Supreme Court began to reverse itself, particularly with the Brown v. Board of Education decision. This ruling outlawing segregated schools was followed by an absolute refusal to integrate and violent riots. When that didn’t work, masses of whites migrated to private white academies.
This always happens: a push for Black rights is followed by a hard punch by whites. While this behavior is political, it’s not partisan. After the Civil War, Republicans fought for Black rights; they’re fighting against them now. Conversely, Democrats in the 1960s fought against equal voting rights; they’re fighting for them now (kind of/sort of). The issue is white resistance to Black gains, and it flows pretty freely between political parties.
Another Backlash Moment
Last year’s George Floyd protests poked white fear. That fear was exacerbated when the former president, who placated white fears, lost re-election. The result is a political tsunami sweeping through our state houses. The reforms are twofold. They want to keep our children from learning the truth about American racism (and thus demanding change). And, most importantly, they want to keep anyone who understands racism from voting easily.
How to Make the Moral Arc Bend
I don’t know about you, but I feel I need to be doing more during this moment.
- How can I better use my writing to call out the cowardice of hiding from our racist past? How do we protect teachers’ right to teach the truth?
- What actions have you found to be most effective in fighting voting restrictions?
- How is your city doing with police reforms? Have you seen any progress?
- Where do you give your money to defeat this moment of white backlash?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is famous for his quote declaring “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” But that curve doesn’t happen on its own. It only happens if we push it. Right now, I feel the need for a little more oomph. I can’t stand it if we look back and the “Obama Era” is marked as a fleeting moment of racial progress.