You’re sitting in that mandatory American History class you have to take and you reach the section in the syllabus where you’ll begin to discuss the mid 20th century. The discussion would include the height of Jim Crow Laws, the beginning of housing practices such as redlining and blockbusting, the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and perhaps even the tragic end of young 14-year-old Emmett Till’s life. The professor would first lecture on the significant details, important dates, and names of historical figures. Then they might ask for the class’s opinion. Almost routinely, each student would explain their outrage and dismay over the institutionalization of blatant racism. Shortly thereafter, students might spout some little known facts about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, or – if they’re truly impressive – Ella Baker. Once the class time has expired, all of the students would put all of their textbooks and notebooks back in their backpacks and – if they’re lucky – swap them in for some television shows to binge watch in the comfort of their own rooms and some freshly made fries in the Blanchard Campus Center. Or more realistically you’ll go to the library directly after class to continue your work.
If you choose the third option, you would walk into the atrium and glance over to your right to see the TV that is always broadcasting CNN. And again, you’d see a headline scrolling across the bottom about another shooting of a black person. For one group, it might be a nuisance to ignore yet another headline about the problems associated with the criminal justice system or to have another conversation about police brutality. For others, it will serve as a constant reminder that no matter what they do or say, a system still exists that marginalizes, discriminates, and persecutes people of color. Even worse, the problem seems to be visible only to them.
I think you may already see what I’m getting at here but if not, I won’t keep my cards too close to my chest. The aim of the Civil Rights movement more than sixty years ago was simple: It fought for the provision of “equal civil and political rights for blacks as individuals, and integration into the mainstream institutions of society, rather than separate nationhood.” Many individuals would say that their goal was achieved through civil rights laws, constitutional amendments, and Supreme Court decisions. Today, they would claim, we live in a society that has advanced far beyond our ancestors’ in that we are less [overtly] racist, more tolerant, and better aware of the world that we live in. Unfortunately, those claims have little credence given the evidence we are shown (or not shown) in the media, and in our neighborhoods, schools, and workforces every single day.
For example, did you hear about reports that found that Officer Timothy Loehmann was “reasonable” in his fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, despite video surveillance indications that the officer fired a shot within seconds of arriving without assessing the situation? Admittedly, that officer likely thought that he was under attack. On the other hand, any properly trained and fully armed adult that fears an adolescent black child might be indicative of a longer problem. Not convinced? Okay, maybe something that has actually been covered by the news will sway you.
Seen any of the presidential political coverage? Then you must have heard at least one quip from leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Maybe something about how all Mexicans are rapists or how he would get rid of all Muslims, including Barack Obama, the President of the United States. The country that prides itself as the Land of the Immigrants has a candidate who advocates for a foreign policy objective that dictates the removal of any Syrian refugees that settle into the United States because some of the young men look like they could be ISIS recruits. Then again, maybe 25% of the Republican Party isn’t a large enough sample size for you to be persuaded.
Let’s try something that pulls upon every single person’s heartstrings: mass shootings. In the last two weeks alone, there have been three college shootings committed by -- as the media would describe -- mentally unstable and emotionally introverted white men. Though I would not begin to argue that their race wasn’t a factor in their crimes, I could easily point out the painstakingly obvious double standard the media possesses during its coverage. As Anthea Butler, professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania explains when referencing Dylann Roof, the killer of nine people in an AME Charleston church, but also white shooters in general “the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.” This is in stark comparison to how he would be treated if he were, say, African American or Muslim:
“U.S. media outlets practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans or Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs (if not always explicitly using the terms), motivated purely by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolves — Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” — violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion.”
Let’s move beyond the media. Remember those institutionalized racist policies you read about in the textbook? Well, they still exist (and are in a worse state than you might have thought).
The racial integration of schools following the mandated desegregation courts and federal governments called for decades ago have been completely reversed. Take the success story of Central Park High in the west end of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Thirty years ago, the merging of two previously segregated schools resulted in the academic and sport team success of all of its students. But now, after governmental flip-flopping on its policies (or trust that an area that has repeatedly segregated without a mandate to do so would suddenly change), the school is 99% black, with the predominantly white neighborhoods adjacent to the school gerrymandering themselves into the attendance zones of other, whiter schools. And this is by no means an isolated incident. According to a 2014 study conducted by the UCLA Graduation School of Education’s Civil Rights Project, schools are more segregated right now than they were in 1968.
Beyond just the segregation of schools, there is also the school to prison pipeline that has only increased in scope during the 21st century. The strict enforcement of zero-tolerance policies, use of suspension and expulsion, and the integration of law enforcement officers into public schools have criminalized the education of students. When you add on the perception that students of color are seen as more dangerous, you’ll find statistics from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights that concludes that black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rates of white students. In terms of school-related arrests, black students account for 31% of them, though they make up only one-sixth of the public school population. Finally, in a time when the education system is strapped for funds, you’ll see that an increasing amount of money is spent on investing in surveillance, patrol and detection measures rather than counselors, librarians, and teachers.
You may ask, how is police brutality, media coverage, and schooling policies all connected in an argument about a new Civil Rights Movement? Well, in more ways than one, these issues all represent things that people of color in this country are sick and tired of dealing with. They are tired of seeing their hairstyles being discovered on runways, sick of watching the deferential treatment of white mass murders while black men and women are held to the highest standards, frightened by the thought of seeing their loved ones die on their streets, and disillusioned by the political officials whom are supposed to be representing their needs. All of these problems are ones that are attempting to be addressed by the new Civil Rights movement. It’s not just about the blatant discrimination anymore; but rather the deeply ingrained yet invisible byproducts of racism that have sunk below the surface. It is about reclamation of culture, inclusion of people of color into all aspects of society, and, perhaps most importantly, the attention of the American populous and the world when the work isn’t getting done.
The other crucial difference between the past and current Civil Rights Movement is this: we don’t follow what Sarah Jackson of Northeastern University would call the “Martin Luther King-Al Sharpton model”. Rather than mobilizing and centering around one charismatic, male leader, we look to the individual agency every single person has in making our country and world a better one. So what does this mean for you? Well, it means that you are perfectly capable of being an ally to the movement in your own way, whether it is participating in a demonstration (like a die-in or a rally) or joining an organization (like Million Hoodies or the Dream Defenders). Luckily for us, some of the work has already started, with the change of Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s day and the efforts presidential candidates are taking to meet with members of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Even more importantly though, being a part of this movement means you understand the obligation you have to your friends, neighbors, classmates, and greater community to acknowledge the inequality they face and work your damn hardest to make sure you are not another microaggression someone has to hear, another person they have to explain what “black lives matter” means, or another barrier to someone feeling truly included and welcomed into a space.
And this is when I ask you to again think about that classroom you were just in. If you are one of the people who is sickened by the actions or lack thereof of previous generations in light of varying past civil rights violations during your lecture, then this is your opportunity to act. You have the opportunity to be who they weren’t and do what they didn’t. And this role does not come lightly. As the lucky inheritors of centuries of mass murder, cultural appropriation, and racial inequality, the work will not be easy. But if we stand to be critics of our past, we must be able to do better in our future.
Photo courtesy of BET.com