As Americans have increasingly taken to the streets, not just to protest George Floyd’s murder, but also to protest overreach by the current, lawless administration, I’ve seen several articles comparing those demonstrations with the civil unrest that characterized the 1960s.
The consensus, I am happy to report, seems to be that we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
For one thing, there is very little disagreement about public reaction to the horrific video showing Floyd’s murder. According to survey research, only 2% of Americans believe that the use of force against him was justified, and 81% consider it unjustified. Fifty-seven percent believe it reflects a greater willingness on the part of police to use excessive force against Black people.
76% of Americans now say that discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the United States is a “big problem,” including 57% of conservatives, 71% of whites, and 69% of whites without college degrees. In addition, Americans have turned more pessimistic about progress toward racial equality. In 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, 79% of Americans saw gains in the fight to end racial discrimination, compared to just 56% today.
Attitudes about protests have similarly evolved. Americans overwhelmingly say that peaceful protests are a justifiable response to police misconduct, and they also believe that police have over-reacted and used excessive and unjustifiable force against peaceful protesters. A whopping two-thirds blame “other people”– not the protesters themselves– for the outbreaks of violence, which they do condemn.
The bottom line: it’s not 1968 anymore. A large share of white Americans now endorse views on race relations once confined largely to African Americans. While Americans of all parties and races continue to oppose violent protests, appeals to “law and order” not balanced with the recognition of deep injustice lack the resonance of half a century ago. This helps explain why barely one-third of Americans support President Trump’s handling of race relations—and why 53% of Americans say that relations have gotten worse on his watch.
In June, Todd Gitlin took a slightly different approach in a column for the Washington Post, comparing today’s protests to 1969 rather than 1968. Gitlin acknowledged that “When windows are smashed, shops go up in flames, looters ransack and police open fire, the collective psyche automatically clicks over to 1968 ,” but he went on to argue that the current anger has more in common with the (far more effective) anti-war demonstrations of 1969.
The issue was different from today’s, but the ecumenical spirit, the resolve and the conviction about the need for a new political start were similar. Then as now, the rallies expressed both solidarity and self-interest. In 1969, with the draft in force, many in the Moratorium crowds had a huge personal stake, though many did not. Today, black protesters have the most obvious stakes, but whites in the far-flung crowds, under a broad range of leaders, are also moved selflessly and morally.
I remember the upheaval of the 60s, and I especially remember the attitudes of my own middle-class, White, “proper” cohort–attitudes that were definitely not sympathetic to the “rabble” that was disturbing their complacency. But looking back, it’s hard to deny that both the riots and the anti-war protests changed America.
Historians tell us that the upheaval of the 1960s integrated universities, spurred the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, put black faces on TV shows other than sports, and provided a blueprint that would be followed by women, LGBTQ Americans and other oppressed groups.
America is a much fairer country as a result of that upheaval.
Of course, making additional places at the civic table continues to upset people who experience equality for others as a diminution of their own status. A columnist for CNN repeated a story that continues to be both explanatory and relevant:
As Hodding Carter put it to historian Arthur Schlesinger, when Schlesinger asked why Southern white men hated Bill Clinton so much, “They look back with longing at the good old days — the days when abortion was in the back alley, gays were in the closet, women were in the kitchen, blacks were in the back of the bus, and condoms were under the counter.”
Progress doesn’t come without disruption–and not everyone applauds when it comes.