Plenty of issues warrant attention as we imagine the course social justice and civil rights will take in the years ahead. A partial list includes police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, new forms of voter suppression, the consolidation of wealth and fight for a living wage, and access to health care. Debate on these fronts will doubtless dominate the news throughout the rest of the decade.
But the biggest problem may be more elemental and come down simply to recognizing where we stand: to pierce through denial and own up to the fitful, circuitous nature of progress on social justice issues. We do not have to agree on every particular, on the various ins and outs of our predicament, but once we concede there are unfinished problems and that many of them are historically determined—that is, passed from one generation to the next—then everything opens up, and the path to desired outcomes becomes shorter. The entire country does not have to arrive at this realization. But it needs to be a sizable contingent—something more than a fifth column.
Still, even partial consensus on social justice matters can be the most elusive quarry. We move through a loud and divisive present, one that is endlessly malleable, capable of supporting almost any meaning we wish to attach to it. I pondered this a few nights ago, while watching television. After scanning the program guide, I settled on City Slickers, the 1991 comic pastiche of old Westerns, starring Billy Crystal. A scene at the start of the film illustrates the problem nicely. Mitch, the character played by Crystal, and two friends arrive at the cowboy fantasy camp where they hope to revive the ease and camaraderie of boyhood. They stand around a cattle ring, about to meet the rest of their tour group, and the first two they encounter are black: Ben and Steve Jessup, father and son—incidentally, the only characters of color in City Slickers, conveniently shuttled off screen about halfway through. Ben is asked where they are from.
“Baltimore,” he says. “We have a dental practice there.”
“Really, you’re both dentists?” Mitch asks.
“Yes, we’re black, and we’re dentists,” answers Steve, who must be in his early twenties, with mocking indignation. “Let’s not make an issue out of it.”
His father chastens him: “They’re not making an issue. You’re making an issue.”
When I first saw City Slickers as a teenager, the scene worked as, I think, it was intended to. The story’s lead figure, portrayed by Crystal, is rendered more sympathetic by the exchange, presented as a man of rectitude, with no bias. Watching it now, though, I shudder and find the whole sequence poisonous, an exemplar of racism in its subtler manifestation. Its unspoken messages—easy to absorb without realizing it—are clear: white people do not care about race.; they are colorblind; it is African Americans who are sensitive and cannot get over it, who insert the topic tactlessly and with every opportunity into the most innocent social occasions; were it not for them and their obsession, we could enter a future free of the awful memory of our past.
City Slickers was produced by Hollywood, a supposed bastion of liberalism. But racism does not know for whose party the votes are cast, or to which Super PAC the millions are directed. Pick your metaphor of predetermination: it’s in the water, it’s in our DNA. Either way, we cannot get rid of it.
All the same, the scene is devoid of any overt display of prejudice, and if forced to battle it out with a denier, one might feel put in the uncomfortable position of having to prove a negative. Writers, this imaginary objection would read. Why must they always do this, take the most meaningless piece, gossamer, and invest it with grandiloquent meaning? This is a comedy, not a sociology class. Racism for writers is like a Rorschach test. They would probably see it in the Mona Lisa.
The debate I have sketched here plays out countless times across America each day. Turn on the news and you’ll see it: people staring at the same thing but advancing wholly different positions, usually in the strained, exhausted rhetoric of 24-hour punditry. If you’re looking for a Venn diagram, something to fill in the space between either/or, keep searching, for there’s nothing to see here. In denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples after she was legally bound to do so, for instance, Kim Davis, a Kentucky county clerk, somehow became the second coming of Rosa Parks and George Wallace at once. Scarcely had she completed the act of defiance before she became cloaked in symbol. In such a climate, it is difficult to do more than just spin your wheels, for it is one of the baseline functions of hysteria to pull everything up to its own level, its own temperature; once the escalation begins, there is nothing we can really do to stop it. Gridlock is the logical or inevitable result, and we’ve had a lion’s share of it in recent years.
Most people are willing to concede that advancing the cause of social justice in the twenty-first century means confronting white privilege and its dynastic quality, the way it is reborn with each generation. White privilege, it is sometimes maintained, has ended. But facts do not lie. The aforementioned issues—police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, voter suppression, the fight for a living wage, and access to health care—are all, in a sense, topical; we saw them rise to the fore during the Obama presidency. Yet they possess a unifying characteristic. In every one of these arenas, outcomes and disparities fall along traditional racial lines, making it the same old story—the same old tragedy—only this time we watch it with greater bewilderment and frustration than before. For haven’t we dealt with our original sin already? Didn’t we do all we could to set our house in order, and a long time ago too, during the years of the Great Society, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the commencement of the War on Poverty? We have, during the last few years, celebrated each of these landmarks, and what was all that celebrating for, if these laws and programs didn’t help curb inequality?
Contemplating such questions, the mind goes in lockdown, trapped in a paradox or infinite circle. The country will never escape the stain of its history, we think, yet we elected a black president. Nothing has changed, and everything has. I grappled with this back-and-forth daily while writing a book, In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now, which aimed to test and explore the idea that the civil rights movement was a continuum, an ongoing tradition of activism rather than a brief and isolated moment in our past. Everywhere I looked, the old and new mingled together. It was a confusing business to sort through, and only after the manuscript was nearly complete—in October 2014—did I begin to see a way out of the tortuous cycle.
During that month I traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to film an interview with Robert Moses. For those unfamiliar with the history of the civil rights movement, he is sometimes confused with that other Robert Moses, the planner who built the parkways and bridges of New York City. This one enjoys a wider distinction: he helped set the foundation for the voting rights movement of the 1960s. That movement formed the backdrop of the documentary I was producing. It took place in 1964, but given recent events—the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, a few months before and the controversy over voter identification laws being passed in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act—the movie no longer felt like a historical exercise. The tensions of our past had circled round again, and while we planned for months to interview Moses, the crew and I now turned to him for something more than just testimony of his front-line experience. We hoped he would illuminate the relationship between that time and our own, an unfair expectation, to be sure, though that is exactly what he went on to do.
Moses was born in Harlem but has spent almost half his life in Boston. He oversees a nonprofit called The Algebra Project, dedicated to the improvement of math literacy among students in the lowest-performing schools. Still, he will always be identified with Mississippi. He was the first member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to work on voter registration in the state. In some of the counties where he canvassed, no African American had voted in the twentieth century. Moses was alien to this milieu: a Yankee, resolute though soft-spoken, formerly a student of advanced math theory at Harvard University. Yet he had a rare ability to inspire trust and refused to flee even after enduring violent beatings and being sent to jail time and again.
There was a civil rights presence in Mississippi already. When he arrived, Moses was sheltered by a bevy of NAACP activists. By and large, they were members of the middle class and held jobs as postmen, storeowners, and the like. SNCC’s great contribution was the way it recruited leaders from the poor, on faith that brilliant organizers were hidden among Mississippi’s domestics and sharecroppers.
Moses spent three years in “the middle of the iceberg,” as he called Mississippi. In that time, few black voters were added to the registrar’s books. Finally, he and his colleagues in SNCC created a political party of their own, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1964, with the help of college students who had volunteered to spend the summer in Mississippi, they held precinct meetings and appointed delegates for the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. When the convention began, the Freedom Democratic Party staged a formal complaint before the credentials committee. They protested that Mississippi’s delegates had been unlawfully appointed because nearly half the state, its black population, was disenfranchised. The Freedom Democratic Party delegates, they argued, should be recognized instead.
The appeal was lost. Though the party was represented by the formidable Joseph Rauh, President Lyndon Johnson, wary of losing the entire electoral count of the Deep South (he would lose it anyway), engineered a compromise whereby Mississippi’s delegates would remain but two additional at-large seats would open for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Moses and others rejected his proposal. As he said at the time, “We’re not here to bring politics into our morality, but to bring morality into politics.” Nearly everyone in the civil rights movement saw it as defeat: if the movement breathed in absolutist terms, now it had been waylaid by the pragmatic realities of the American political machine.
Fifty years later, as he spoke to us in Cambridge, Moses expressed a different view of the outcome. “It was clear at Atlantic City that we had succeeded in shifting the conversation,” he said on that day when our cameras were rolling. “The national party structure was now going to open up. Things were not going to be the same in Mississippi.”
True, the Voting Rights Act was passed the following year, and the Democratic convention of 1964 would be the last with an all-white delegation from the South. African Americans had gained a presence in political life, even if it would prove to be an embattled one. The election of Barack Obama, Moses believed, could be traced to Atlantic City. But he spoke of these achievements resignedly. Despite all the energy and ingenuity they had shown, he believed SNCC had in some sense fallen short.
“What we failed to do,” he said, “was actually get the people who were the engine—the sharecroppers—into the actual running of things. The deal was going to be like school integration. Pick a few well-dressed people and put them in this other place. And we see the outcome of that today. We weren’t able to actually get the people who were at the heart of the movement to shift their place in the society. What happened was doors were opened and a few people who were ready walked through.”
In other words, we cannot confuse progress for a few with progress for all. This sums up the past five decades better than any other statement, and if there is an answer to the sphinxlike riddle of everything has changed and nothing has, I suspect this is it. We tend to assume social justice proceeds monolithically, in a single direction toward decadence or betterment, when it is really amoebic in shape. Some parts will protrude, advance forward, while others remain where they are. Moses’s comment entails a warning that we should be wary of applause that attends easy symbols and token benchmarks. Our view of one piece of the organism should not obscure us to the whole.
Often, however, this is precisely what happens, and progress can even serve as an alibi for complacency or rollbacks. Selma, Alabama, for instance, played host to the most infamous scene of the voting rights movement in March 1965, when a throng of protesters were attacked with tear gas and billy clubs wound with barbed wire. Today, Selma is a den of poverty, with education and health care offerings that resemble those of a developing country. The Selma Country Club boasts not a single African American member, its public schools have few, if any, white students, and the downtown blocks show one abandoned storefront after another. Driving through it is like driving through the remnants of a nuclear winter and seeing a community that lost, in an instant, all of its human inhabitants. Selma is not the first place, in short, one would submit as evidence of strides America has taken. But Selma has a black mayor now, and this is enough for some, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. included, who mentioned the fact in the majority decision in Shelby County v. Holder. A logical, inevitable corollary of white flight, Roberts saw the racial makeup of the local government as proof the standards previously used to enforce the Voting Rights Act were obsolete. “History,” he wrote in arguing for an updated standard, “did not end in 1965.” And so it did not. History, in towns like Selma, has gone on pretty much as it always has.
Selma as progress, Selma as stasis: the present, manifold and contradictory as it is, can endorse both views. But as time draws on, the second half of the equation will start to overwhelm the first. Soon we won’t be able to congratulate ourselves on Selma having a black mayor, and our congratulation, in fact, already sounds like something else, such as weak reassurance. The identity of the mayor seems largely moot in a county where half the children live in poverty. This should be enough to compel us to action. Not just any action, but action that helps to complete the mission Robert Moses articulated.
We have to get the engine into the running of things. How do we do that, effect change that goes beyond tokenism, that does more than provide the illusion of change and a source of easy congratulation, but gives the poorest and least visible members of our democracy access to the rights and benefits so many Americans experience? These are difficult questions, and the list could easily be added to, yet as soon as we begin to sort through them, we are taking the first step toward owning up to the realities of our moment and acknowledging where we stand.
There can be no redress without acknowledgement, which is never instantly or painlessly won, and at times arrives only by dint of great, convulsive social movements. How do you know it’s coming? You watch for the language, for some fundamental merging of vocabulary, high and low. It was clear a Voting Rights Act was on the horizon when Lyndon
Johnson interpolated “We Shall Overcome” before Congress. So it’s no small thing, during this election season, to hear a presidential candidate talk about body cameras or “the 1 percent.” The terminology is no accident. Occupy and Black Lives Matter put it there, and not just in their minds, either, but in all of ours. Promising developments, to be certain, and it is up to us to keep applying pressure, resolving to remain actors, not merely the acted upon. Such a choice will brighten the outlook of our future.