As I have written in the past, I spent a good part of my youth in Asheville, N.C. I have vivid memories of white or colored signs over water fountains, rest rooms and movie theater entrances. I attended segregated schools and heard the “n” word used frequently by kids and adults alike. Housing was extremely segregated and clearly unequal. Blacks were expected to sit in the back of the bus, and relinquish even that less-favored seat to a white person if no other seat was available. The only blacks that we came into contact with either worked in our home or as a laborer. While I witnessed no violence, that was only a result of proximity not a lack of white on black violence. This was the culture and the environment of my youth, and that of millions of other kids throughout the south in the 50’s and early 60’s.
The coming of the Civil Rights movement in the latter 50’s and early 60’s was tumultuous, as it sought to shake the very roots of a culture that had been in place for decades. While laws may be changed by the legislatures and the courts, changing mores and attitudes is a far greater challenge. Yet over time, and as a result of thousands of courageous individuals and their visionary leaders, black and white alike, our country moved away from decades of both institutional and cultural racial discrimination. We began to see integrated schools, restaurants, hotels and neighborhoods. Of course it didn’t all happen at once, and some changes took years, but the changes did come. The visible signs of racism seemed to be receding as the later part of the 20th century moved on. As a sign of these changes, we agreed as a nation to celebrate the great sacrifice and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a special federal holiday each year. We have certainly come a long way from the “Jim Crow” horrors of the past. Or have we?
As we are about to celebrate 50 years since King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, I contend that we have moved far less than some may think. With the election of Barack Obama, a new and more insidious brand of racism has become evident. The use of code by the right-wing and the unending effort to force Obama into a failed presidency is very troubling. Just the other day, the Governor of Maine stated that Obama hates whites. The cuts that have been made as a result of the sequestration have been heavily weighted against the poor and minority communities. A significant portion of the Louisiana GOP blames Obama for the poor government response to Katrina, though he was not yet in office. The voter suppression bills being passed throughout the country along with the anti-abortion legislation is targeted to impact on the minority community. Obviously the anti-immigration attitudes are based in racism as well.
The anti Obama movement that has taken over the GOP has given cover to a pervasive and vicious form of racism that allows the use of political institutions to achieve its goals. The economic disparity between whites and blacks has changed little since the 1960’s as the wealthy continue to get wealthier. The demographics showing that whites will soon be a minority in our country has the GOP frightened and they will do all that they can to solidify their institutional advantage to enable them to maintain their “rightful” position in American society. Have we really made much progress?