In light of the tragedies of last week, and the continued strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, I thought I’d republish an essay I wrote last year for the Peace and Justice Crier, an annual publication of New England Friends Meeting.
When Barack Obama took office in 2009 as the first African American president of the United States, there was a lot of speculation in the media about whether the US had entered a “post-racial” period in its history, and the long march to justice for black Americans was finally reaching its end.
Those who remembered walking with Martin Luther King Jr. along the bridge to Selma fifty years ago certainly would have recognized the election of a black president as a milestone in that march to justice. But it is unlikely they would have found the argument that America had become a “post-racial” society convincing.
By just about any measure of social well-being, fifty years after the victories of the civil rights era, which overturned segregation laws across the country and guaranteed the protection of certain rights of citizenship, African Americans continue to lag behind their white neighbors. Their average income, wealth, life expectancy and rates of home ownership are lower. Their unemployment, poverty and infant mortality rates are higher.
Even some of the civil rights-era victories have been rolled back. A conservative US Supreme Court has curtailed affirmative action, and put severe restrictions on the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. State legislatures have passed laws in recent years that have the practical effect of suppressing voting by minorities and the poor.
But perhaps—in accordance with Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that the easiest way to tell who is being oppressed in a society is by visiting its prisons—the rate of incarceration of black prisoners provides the most dramatic illustration that the US continues to be a racially unequal society. In a country that imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world, African Americans are proportionately much more likely than whites to be arrested, imprisoned or shot dead by police. It’s a situation that one author has accurately defined as “the new Jim Crow.”
Not long after Obama was inaugurated, it became apparent that the US had not moved beyond its racial divisions. To the contrary, despite the fact that the first African American president didn’t exhibit any apparent favoritism toward his own community, nor take any official action to address chronic problems of racial injustice (an indifference that lost him support among a small segment of the black community, personified by public intellectuals like Cornel West), the tension between the races seemed to become more stark.
This was partly due to the current extreme partisanship of the American political system, which has had a racial dimension from its very beginnings. But the intensity of partisan divisions was heightened by a perception that the bitter opposition of today’s Republicans—the modern descendants of 20th century Dixiecrats—was motivated at least in part by the race of the Democrat in the White House. This perception was further fueled by an explosion in the numbers of hate groups across the country, which grew by over 800 percent in Obama’s first term, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Nevertheless, the issue of racism in America simmered just below the surface of public discussion throughout most of Obama’s time in office. But beginning with the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager whose white killer was acquitted by a Florida jury, the question of race in America has returned to center stage, and a new movement for racial justice has formed.
The vanguard of this new movement is Black Lives Matter, a group founded by young black community organizers in reaction to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer. The phrase was coined in a Facebook post by organizer Alicia Garza, and with the addition of a hashtag by co-founder Patrisse Cullors, #BlackLivesMatter became a phenomenon on social media that to this date has inspired nearly a thousand demonstrations and vigils nationwide.
Here, in part, is Garza’s description of the group’s philosophy: “When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgment that black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that one million black people locked in cages in this country—one half of all people in prisons or jails—is an act of state violence. It is an acknowledgment that black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence…And the fact that the lives of black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is a consequence of state violence.”
The Black Lives Matter movement reached a higher level of national prominence when it led the reaction to a series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement in Ferguson MO, New York City, and Baltimore MD. Although the black community’s revulsion at these murders sometimes took a violent turn in the form of riots and looting, the systemic nature of the racial injustice in America remained at the forefront of public dialogue. And the reaction of public officials began to change. Whereas local prosecutors declined to bring charges in the Ferguson and NYC cases, in Baltimore and other cities where similar incidents have occurred, indictments have been brought against the police officers involved, or there are ongoing investigations. Black lives have indeed begun to matter.
The national dialogue that began with the death of Trayvon Martin reached an apotheosis in the wake of the murders of nine innocent black people, including a state senator, at the hands of a young white supremacist in a Charleston SC church. It is perhaps too early to say, but the national reaction to these murders—from President Obama’s eulogy for Senator Clementa Pinckney, who served as pastor of the church in which he was murdered, to the South Carolina legislature’s decision to finally remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds—seems to signal a transformation of consciousness that, in the end, may begin to address the centuries-old injustice at the heart of American culture and society. Only time will tell.
Still, there is work to be done. Racism remains. White privilege remains. The conditions of injustice remain. Black churches are burning in the South. The Ku Klux Klan is planning a rally.
America is not yet a post-racial society.
A lifelong peace and justice activist, Michael Hasty is a member of Occupy NH Seacoast, with whom he has helped organize a number of Black Lives Matter vigils in the southern New Hampshire area. As a member of his local library’s program committee, he has been an organizer and participant in an ongoing series of public discussions about why race matters in his small, predominantly white Maine town.