Fifty years ago this month, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
It was little more than 16 years before my birth that history was made. My peers and I are the products of a generation wrapped in turmoil. Some of us had parents who taught us about their struggles growing up. About the men and women and children who surrounded the buses so that our fathers and our mothers would not be able to get an education. About the deaths of their siblings and friends, who stood up against a government unafraid to strike down its own citizens, because they were not considered equal citizens. Our parents and grandparents were animals who could speak, kept well and fed well if they behaved, and put down if they did not wag their tails in a certain direction.
Some of us had parents who chose to forget. Who let the signing of bills and the passage of laws do the remembering for them. Who did not recognize the sociopolitical climate that kept opportunities few and far in between. Who did not want their children to know what it felt like to be drowned by the element that gives us life, or hung by the life that gives us shelter.
Collectively, we know what happened, for society will not allow us to forget.
Today’s hoses are not just seen in the historical footage of lynch mobs attacking or killing innocent people, being forced to attend separate schools, or legislation making it extremely difficult to advance in the same society that labelled you as less than a human being as others. The hoses may be as casual as a recruiter or potential client, despite numerous positive conversations, deciding after meeting for the first time face to face that you’re not a good fit for the company culture. Or looking at your LinkedIn profile and saying, hey, nevermind what we discussed, you’re not what we’re looking for. The hoses can be as humbling as someone saying well good for you! when they discover your educational or employment background. The hoses can be as innocent as a neighbor reporting suspicious behavior at 2:30am to the police at the house you just purchased, or being shot on the land you just acquired, or being followed home in the rain one night after buying snacks for your kid brother.
It is 2014, 33 years after I was born, that I continue to witness the sons of those who hold the hoses continue to press at us.
The hoses may be from a distance, the cowards may choose not to reveal themselves, but the water is still wet, and I, like my father and my mother and my grandparents before me, continue to fight just for the chance to stand. The hoses today are just as real as the ones from yesterday. While not every slight, inconvenience, or victim of rude behavior is due to racism, and while the fight is not as much for life as it is for continuing a standard of living, the feeling, the realism, and the fear of being a target remain.
It is easy to want to forget or neglect the everyday casualness of discrimination, or to want to pretend that everything that happened in the past was just the past. Even writing this, I have thoughts and fears of being judged for even discussing race, of accusations of pulling the race card. Just shut up, get over it, be a good boy, the voice in the back of my mind says, race is not something we talk about anymore.
You may speak, but you must behave if you want to be well kept and well fed. Otherwise…
A few weeks ago, someone very close to me used the word nigger in a very inappropriate way. Despite their closeness to me, I objected to their use of the word. There is a context and power and history behind that word that goes beyond mere familiarity. There is a history of genetic punishment, of inferiority, of inhumanity that has followed the use of that word for centuries and remains in use today. To expect a black person to just shrug it off and move on from it with a half-hearted apology goes beyond foolishness and ignorance. It speaks of an underlying contempt that begs the question if any amount of education or understanding will ever cure it from their tongue.
The hose that was used struck to the very core of my being. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. To say I was surprised would be a lie.
From birth, children are taught behaviors that engender them to certain societal roles. In the United States, we teach male children to play rough, with war-based toys, and to be competitive through sports and other activities; female children are given Barbies, pink kitchens, and plastic infant lookalikes to take care of. Even in the business world, we see the effect of Western society’s assignment of gender roles impacting careers. In a gender stratified society, what men do is usually valued more highly than what women do because men do it, even when their activities are similar. This example is prevalent in the inequality of pay for men and women in the United States, as the median income for women is roughly 77% of the median income for men.
Similarly, children of different racial backgrounds are taught behaviors that lead them to believing certain things about themselves. White is good, black is bad; this is an inequality that remains prevalent in the workforce with regard to race, which reasons why white high school dropouts are more likely to land a job than black college graduates.
At the founding of the United States, only landowners were allowed to vote, and only white males were allowed to own land. The Bible was used to give Europeans a sense of superiority over the Africans that were enslaved. The invasion and genocide through centuries was seen as manifest destiny, valid and justified. As the country grew, as rights were voted on and given (rather than merely seen as expected) and more people of varying backgrounds became citizens of the country, the power base has mostly remained the same.
The basis of privilege is to be afforded advantages based on social status that is conferred to certain groups. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool; males receive privileges over women in that they are given certain powers as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women. While each man’s privilege may be experienced different due to his own position in the social hierarchy, every male benefits from this privilege and women do not. The same power is applicable towards whites, and the privilege is indoctrinated into the white individual so as to be taken for granted. They are brought up with a perception that racism is someone else’s problem, with their experiences remaining the norm. Having known nothing different beyond the white power dynamic, they never gave the benefits afforded to them any thought, thus making it invisible to them.
The successful invisibility of white privilege is therefore normal, whereas those of color are seen as something foreign, something different, something other. The obliviousness of white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. In order to examine whites as a racial category, the obliviousness of the white experience must be lifted, it must be acknowledged that the playing field is not equal and that the inherent unfairness should not only be recognized, no matter how uncomfortable, but must be worked on from a systemic standpoint.
Unfortunately, the work remains stagnant as the people who need to work to develop the changes needed, while rejecting the system, inherently are married to it. Underneath the systemic denial of equality, beneath the bravado of the modern young urban adult, and behind general forgetfulness of the struggles that occurred less than a lifetime ago, lies an insecure psyche fueled by anger and self-hatred. White still remains good, black still remains bad; less simply, the established culture remains the path to success, any resistance to it automatically leads to failure. And rather than fighting the hoses, they embrace it, because nothing but the worst is expected–this is how you were born, this is what others believe of you, so this is how you will be. Eventually, the anger and self-hatred percolating in young minds can boil over into violence. Which leads the ones who never had to experience denial of rights to ponder if rights should be taken away anyway. Besides, unemployment among them is high, criminality remains high, and entrepreneurial opportunities will remain low so long as things remain the way they are; wouldn’t they be better off?
How soon we all forget.
Nationalism during much of America’s history was concerned only with the protection and rights of white citizens, with rights denied to all other groups. For too long a time, non-white groups were believed to be or argued to be not as intellectually evolved as whites, not to hold the same level of allegiance for this nation as whites, or seen as clear and present dangers to the entire country based on nothing more than ethnic, national, or even tribal origins.
People v. Hall demonstrated this by stating that since Chinese people are regarded as the same human sub-species as Native Americans, testimony against white persons is inadmissible in a court of law; therefore, no Native American would be allowed to give evidence for or against whites. This was defended by the belief that non-whites were inferior to whites, whose “mendacity is proverbial”, whom “nature has marked as inferior”, and who “are incapable of progress or intellectual development beyond a certain point”, justifying discrimination against non-white groups. Elk v. Wilkins used an Indian’s tribal heritage as reason to deny voting rights, despite Elk voluntarily separating himself from his tribe. He could not meet “the allegiance test” as he “owed immediate allegiance to ” his tribe: “[Indians] are no more ‘born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof’… than the children of subjects of any foreign government born within the domain of that government”. Tribes were concluded to be alien nations and distinct political communities. In Korematsu v. United States, it was found that those of Japanese ancestry were a clear and present danger to the safety of the United States simply by their national origin or ancestry, and so “exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group”.
The fight for equality has never been about black vs. white. The definition of what makes an American and who is entitled to the rights and protections of this nation has been as ever-evolving as the laws that govern it, despite being founded on the amalgamation of disparate regions of the world in a land once seen as alien and fantastical. Native Americans fought and still fight; Asian-Americans fought and still fight; homosexuals fought and they still fight. When the fight is done and justice provided for those the Martin Luther Kings and the Matthew Shepards of the world, we as a society tend to forget what it felt like to have the ropes around our necks, the dogs at our backs, and the bullets in our chests.
But the ones who were attacked still remember.
They did not fall easily. Nor did they give up when the world wanted nothing better than to see them back in chains. They were determined to stand, destined to be forgotten, desiring only to matter. They fought for an equal vote, an equal chance at life, and an equal opportunity to be human.
On July 2, 1964, they won.
On July 3, 1964, they fought. On April 4, 1968, and on November 16, 1972, and on January 28, 1988, and on October 12, 1998, they fought.
On July 29, 2014, we fight. And we will continue to do so to end the anger. So the hurt and progression and the ones who bled so we did not have to are not forgotten. So that acceptance is not questioned. So that love is not denied.
Because the ones who held the hoses, the ones who held the power, also remember.
This is history, not long passed.