We Americans live in interesting times. It’s been fifty years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, and fifty years since the infamous Watts riots in Los Angeles; fifty years have gone by since the mid-point of the “decade that changed everything” – the 1960s. It’s a good time to ask ourselves what has really changed, and what has not.
We saw a great shift in awareness of racial divisions at that time. Though not everyone agreed that America should be proactive about narrowing the racial divide, the images of Dr. King, of riots in Watts and other cities, the image of LBJ signing legislation that was stunning in scope, did have an impact on the minds of Americans and showed them that yes, there was a racial problem.
We’ve come a long way since 1965.
Take a look at some attitudes back then, as compiled by Professors Lawrence Bobo, Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh and Maria Krysan, in their book Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, of data from the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. In 1965:
•30 percent of whites felt that blacks and whites should attend separate schools
•23 percent of whites felt that blacks shouldn’t have the right to use the same parks, restaurants, and hotels as white people
•60 percent of whites were in favor of laws against intermarriage (1964)
Let’s face it. Racism is nowhere near as invidious as it was in the 1960s. And that decade represented a stunning leap in terms of racial tolerance as compared to decades prior.
Few would argue that we are far from the days of Jim Crow segregation, with its signs “no colored’s welcomed here.” Yet many sociologists have argued that in its place has emerged a more subtle type of racism, what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “color-blind racism.” In his research, Bonilla-Silva found that while most whites outwardly proclaim that they don’t see color, their statements were often prefaced with “Well, I’m not racist, but…”. He writes:
Compared to Jim Crow racism, the ideology of color blindness seems like “racism lite.” Instead of relying on name calling (n-ggers, sp-cs, ch-nks), color- blind racism otherizes softly (“ these people are human, too”); instead of proclaiming that God placed minorities in the world in a servile position, it suggests they are behind because they do not work hard enough; instead of viewing interracial marriage as wrong on a straight racial basis, it regards it as “problematic” because of concerns over the children, location, or the extra burden it places on couples.
Revealing are some of the comments I received after posting a piece called “Why Do Conservatives Hate Talking About Race? Here’s one response, but a typical one:
I don’t get how I can be considered a racist for viewing everyone equal and thus not giving two sh-ts about “race issues”, yet someone can be called tolerant for continually bringing up a topic that serves to divide people on the assumption that one group is inherently racist and another a victim solely due to the color of one’s skin… Jesus Christ, it’s 2015, we all bleed red blood, and the only thing I will judge anyone on is their actions, their morals/ethics, and their integrity… But no, I suppose that’s somehow racist too… Or is it that being truly tolerant doesn’t serve a financial/political interest for a select few who profit off of the continued strife this ridiculous issue has continued to generate?
Even the U.S. Supreme Court (the conservatives on the court) insisted that we’re so post-racial that there really was no need anymore for the protections of the voting rights act. So they gutted it in 2013. Surely, we wouldn’t go back to Jim Crow era poll taxes and other restrictions on voting that would largely affect African Americans in the south.
It took literally hours after that ruling before states, mostly in the south, moved to pass highly restrictive voting laws that would primarily affect African Americans and the poor.
Now for the good news. New research shows that there’s been a marked shift in race consciousness over the past year. We are in what just might be a second great shift on racial awareness and a growing understanding of our divisions.
Pew Research Center recently released a comprehensive survey of Americans’ views on race. It showed a big change in a short time. One finding: half of respondents said racism is a big problem in American society today. In 2010, a similar survey found just a third of respondents saying this.
Pew also found a huge shift in attitudes in just the past year. Since Pew’s last annual survey on the race, the percentage of Americans across all groups who say the nation needs to continue making changes to achieve racial equality has increased by thirteen percent. In just one year.
What’s interesting is that, while the longstanding gaps in attitudes between blacks and whites remain (and partisan and ideological divides also persist), every demographic in Pew’s study has shifted in the past year in favor of saying racism is a big problem in society. Young, old, Republican, Democrat, black, white, northerners, southerners. Every group.
Another interesting aspect of Pew’s new survey results is that every group surveyed—race, age, education, political party—showed a higher percentage saying America “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.”
What’s happened since Pew’s last survey? One big thing. The intense focus on racial bias in policing and the deaths, some with video, of unarmed black men. Ferguson and Michael Brown – we’re at that one-year anniversary now. Staten Island and Eric Garner. Cleveland and Tamir Rice. Charleston and Walter Scott. Baltimore and Freddie Gray. And, of course, a few months ago there was Dylann Roof, the young man who gunned down worshippers in a Black church, a man who had a trove of photos of him with guns and the Confederate flag
Then there’s a growing awareness of African American incarceration rates. An alarming change in recent years has been the incarceration rate of young, African American males. Between 1980 and 2000, the rate of black incarceration nearly tripled. According to a study by the Pew Foundation in 2008, while one in thirty men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males the figure is one in nine. Writes Michelle Alexander, author of the book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington D.C. … it is estimated that three out of four young black men can expect to serve time in prison.”
The awareness of the division between blacks and whites is being further exposed by Black Lives Matter. They certainly are having a profound effect on the Presidential race. In heckling Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – funny how they don’t even bother with the Republicans – they’ve sought to make these candidates address their issues, loudly and publicly. They also pressured Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton to meet with them to discuss what they want and what they think she should address. It a far cry from previous elections where, let’s face it, Democrats largely took the black vote for granted and almost never mentioned institutional racism.
We’ll see how it plays out in this election season. Black Lives Matter could overreach – and some of their strong-arm tactics have been criticized from the left – but so far they are both riding the wave and pushing the wave.
And we’ll see whether this new awareness really does lead to long-lasting change. But there are indictors that the second great shift might be imminent.