Tag Archives: protests

1968?

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.

The Brookings Institution examined public opinion on race, and concluded–as the title of that report put it–“When it comes to opinions on race, it isn’t 1968 anymore.”

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.

Furthermore,

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.

Facing Up To The Challenge?

As protests continue and the “President” (note quotation marks) continues to unravel, I am seeing some hopeful signs of a national awakening. I’ve previously noted that–in contrast to the 60s–there is enormous diversity in the crowds that have taken to the streets demanding justice, and fortunately, most of the media is highlighting that diversity.

Media (with the predictable exception of Fox) is also taking care to note that much of the chaos and looting is attributable to the efforts of white nationalist “race war” agitators and opportunistic hoodlums, not the protestors. They are also covering the backlash against Trump’s clumsy, militarized crackdown on peaceful protestors in order to clear the path for his ludicrous (and arguably sacrilegious) “photo op.”

Particularly gratifying are the signs of a welcome–if belated–pushback by the military.

A retired colleague of mine sent me a copy of the letter issued by Mark Milley, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a letter which Milley copied to what appears to be the entire military establishment). The letter began by reminding recipients that every member of the military takes an oath to protect the Constitution and the values embedded within it–values that include the belief that all people are born free and equal and entitled to “respect and dignity.” He also referenced respect for the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Assembly clauses.

Milley’s letter came at approximately the same time that General Mattis–finally!–spoke out:

“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis said in a statement published in The Atlantic.

“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens —much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

As these military men pointedly noted, their allegiance is to the Constitution–and by implication, not to the wannabe dictator occupying the Oval Office.

As reassuring as these reactions have been, I’m pinning my hopes for meaningful change on signs that unprecedented numbers of white Americans are ready to confront the realities of America’s social structures–ready to genuinely consider the longstanding effects of systemic racism and the dramatically-different realities experienced by white and black Americans.

A former student of mine has a once-in-a-while blog; I was struck by his most recent post, just a few days ago. He began by saying that, as “a privileged white male, I have been struggling with what I can add to the critical dialog on race during these turbulent times.”

He went on to take issue with the statement  that there is “only one race, the human race.”

While a beautiful sentiment, and a biological fact, for a white person to say that “there is only one race” discounts—in most settings—the lived experience of black and brown folk and shuts down any authentic conversation on race.  As one of my favorite writers on the subject, Dr. Robin DiAngelo explains in her lecture Deconstructing White Privilege,

“To say that we are all the same denies we have fundamentally different experiences. While race at the biological level is not real, race as a social construct based on superficial features is very real with significant consequences in people’s lives. The insistence that “we are all one” does not allow us to engage in that social reality.”

The entire post is worth reading, especially for his observation– only now beginning to be widely understood–  that racism is not (just) a moral problem; it is “a system of unequal social, cultural, and institutional power.” As he writes, so long as racism is seen as an individual moral failing, the structures and institutions designed to maintain white supremacy will remain in place.

About those structures…

It’s absolutely true that, as many defenders of the status quo like to say, laws can’t change what is in people’s hearts. What that facile truism fails to recognize is that laws do change behaviors, and that, over time, changing behaviors changes hearts.

Consider the effects of Loving v. Virginia, the case that struck down laws against miscegenation. One big difference between now and the 60s has been the increase in interracial marriages. Those unions haven’t simply allowed people who love each other to wed; they’ve educated–and changed– extended families, co-workers and friendship circles. 

The fire this time isn’t a repeat of the 60s. This time, more minds are open. This time, we can do better.

 

It’s A Political Divide, Not A Class Conflict

You’ve got to give Republicans credit–they’ve been really good at framing disputes among the various Democratic Party factions in ways that are most likely to create negative stereotypes appealing to independent voters.

The term “identity politics,” for example, is a not-very-veiled negative reference to activists emphasizing the interests/concerns of their (usually marginalized) groups–African-Americans, women, LGBTQ folks.

Working class activists are frequently accused of waging “class warfare.”

For some reason, Evangelicals aren’t pursuing “identity politics,” and crony capitalists aren’t waging class warfare; they are usually referred to more politely–if at all– as “interest groups.” But I digress.

In a recent column for the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg pointed out that the multiple columns arguing that lockdowns pit an affluent professional class that can mostly work from home against a working class that must risk its health in order to put food on the table are badly mischaracterizing the situation.

Writing in The Post, Fareed Zakaria tried to make sense of the partisan split over coronavirus restrictions, describing a “class divide” with pro-lockdown experts on one side and those who work with their hands on the other. On Fox News, Steve Hilton decried a “37 percent work from home elite” punishing “real people” trying to earn a living. In a column titled “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Lockdown,” The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan wrote: “Here’s a generalization based on a lifetime of experience and observation. The working-class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate.”

The data says this is horse manure.

One recent survey found that, overall, 74 percent of Americans agreed  that the “U.S. should keep trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even if that means keeping many businesses closed.” Among respondents who’d been laid off or furloughed, 79% agreed.

Other research has determined that economic status isn’t what drives American disagreement over Coronavirus policies. It is “identity politics,” true, but the identity involved is  political.

Donald Trump and his allies have polarized the response to the coronavirus, turning defiance of public health directives into a mark of right-wing identity. Because a significant chunk of Trump’s base is made up of whites without a college degree, there are naturally many such people among the lockdown protesters.

 As Goldberg notes, what seems like attractive “liberation” to many comfortable people chafing at confinement is experienced as compulsion by those returning to riskier jobs. In a number of states, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that re-opening (usually in defiance of advice from public health officials) is prompted by the governor’s desire to avoid emptying out the state’s unemployment reserves.  (If an employer reopens but a worker doesn’t feel safe returning and quits, the employee can no longer collect unemployment benefits).

Goldberg argues that it is actually the financial elites that are eager for everyone else to resume powering the economy.

“‘People Will Die. People Do Die.’ Wall Street Has Had Enough of the Lockdown,” was the headline on a recent Vanity Fair article. It cited a banker calling for “broad legal indemnification for employers against claims related to the virus” so that employees can’t sue if their workplace exposes them to illness. Here we see the real coronavirus class divide.

Bolstering Goldberg’s version of reality are reports that the presumably “working class” protestors clamoring (often with guns and Confederate flags) for an end to the lockdowns are actually far-right operatives, many not even from the states in which they are protesting, and that nearly half of the twitter accounts urging reopening are bots.

We still have “identity poliitics.” But in the age of Trump, our identities have become almost entirely political.