In my last column, I wrote at length on pundits’ appropriation of Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to decry today’s movements against racial injustice. What I think this all points to is a surprisingly common misconception amongst Americans, particularly white Americans – that we have had our day of reckoning with race.
The way many white Americans talk about race suggests that the subject is decidedly a thing of the distant past, it may as well be myth. A topic relegated to the arena of Oscar-winning dramas and the occasional reference in history books.
But this moment in time, the one where Americans like to imagine that we all sat down and talked through our differences and put this whole “race” thing behind us, it never happened.
The civil rights movement represented some meaningful steps on the legislative level toward racial equality, but that doesn’t mean the American populace’s views on race suddenly changed on the whole. That doesn’t mean we’ve dismantled the centuries of open racial violence and oppression that have occurred on our soil and beyond.
The proof? People were saying in the 1960s exactly what they’re saying now. Eighty-five percent of white Americans believed that black children had just as good of a chance to get a good education as white children in a 1962 Gallup poll, despite the fact that segregation was still in effect with blacks being openly resigned to separate, poorer schools. The percentage of white Americans who believe blacks have equal educational opportunity hasn’t changed by more than 7 percent until 2016, more than fifty years later, according to a July 15 Gallup study.
The reality is that white America has found a convenient habit for itself; look fifty or so years into the past and say “Well, blacks have it better now than they did then, that must mean racism is over!” The polls make it clear; at no point in our history (the emancipation of slaves, perhaps, excepted) has a meaningful majority of white America stopped in the moment, acknowledged racial discrimination happening at the time, and taken steps to correct it.
White America lives under a constantly cycling, self-perpetuating lie that whatever bad has happened, it’s a thing of the past. And whatever’s happening now is the product of ungrateful, self-victimizing rabble-rousers who demand “special treatment.”
We have not overcome racism.
That can’t happen until a decisive moment of reckoning for our nation. What would it take to trigger such a moment? It’s hard to say. Is it even possible for such a moment to occur? Also hard to say.
Many African Americans have resigned themselves to the probability that such a moment of collective clarity is little more than a fantasy, that’s just not the manner in which large groups of people, bound by centuries of cultural habits and ideas, operate.
I myself find my belief in such a change has faded almost completely. Whatever the future holds for the African American, wide-scale acknowledgement of present-day racism doesn’t seem to be in the cards. But the fact still remains; that moment of reckoning, fantasy or no, has not occurred. And the longer we cling to this lie, the more ingrained in our cultural psyche it becomes.
Andrew Allen is a senior majoring in communications. This is the first column in a two-part series on contemporary racism. Upon Further Review runs alternate Thursdays.