Martin Luther King, Jr. day is this week, and it’s a good time to take stock of what progress, if any, has been made in the area of race relations since his passing. Or, “his murder” might be a more apt way to put it. A Thai friend of mine asked me about it, something about what’s the difference now from when you were a boy? It’s a fair question. When I was a boy we had Jim Crow laws in lots of places, and now, we do not. When I was a boy, Martin was very likely to be referred to as “Martin Lucifer Coon,” and now we have a national holiday in his memory and a Black American in the white house (and not just serving coffee!). So what’s the deal?
I hedged about my answer, I don’t like to sugar coat these things, but I don’t like to be too negative either. Honestly, I think the current state of race relations in America is a poor, woebegone hooptie in desperate need of an overhaul. But haven’t things gotten better? In some measure anyway? What about that Black president in the White House?
What I said was this: when I was a boy, there was more prejudice against Blacks in America. Now people are not so prejudiced, but the people that are prejudiced against Blacks hate them more than in the old days. I was surprised to hear these words come out of my mouth, it was a new formulation for me.
So is it true? Back in the Fifties most Whites were prejudiced, but it was a casual, unfocused prejudice in most of the country, not advised or well thought out. It was simply the received wisdom of the age. Blacks were thought to be inferior, and keeping them in certain neighborhoods and certain job categories was seen as a natural and paternalistic thing to do. Withholding access to higher education or banking services beyond a passbook account was considered only sensible, because such things were all beyond their capabilities anyway. That’s the way the logic went. There was nothing personal about it.
(I’m talking about most of America. In the states of the “former Confederacy,” of course, it was advised, it was personal, and it was often more vicious.)
Now though, there are a lot of White people, all over America, who are really worked up about Black Americans. Really bitching and moaning up a storm. Not a majority, certainly, but a lot of people. They are being manipulated by cynical politicians and wealthy preachers; they are being told that Blacks want “reparations,” that Blacks are bankrupting our government by demanding “handouts,” that Blacks are making our country a dangerous place to live, and other lies and slanders. There’s this new “right-wing-echo-chamber” media shit storm where all of these disgruntled Whites can get together and roll each other’s logs. The comments are chilling.
This “now” thing is a very different America than the America of my youth, and the reasons for the new hostility to Black Americans are easy to see.
America fifty years ago was a place of low income-disparity and low unemployment. It was a comfortably middle-class society, where pretty much anybody could make a living and support themselves. Access to education was good, for the White people anyway, and access to health care was pretty good generally. There were covenants in place to govern the conduct of employers vis-à-vis their employees, and the conduct of professionals in the market place. Not a perfect place, but it functioned well. For the White people, anyway.
America these days is a pirate cove of bloody-minded greed, absurd accumulation of wealth, and selfish indulgence in luxury. All of the covenants have been discarded, and all of the prior attempts to put constraints on gangster-capitalism have been undone. The great majority of Americans, almost all of us, Black, White and otherwise, are watching our opportunities dry up and our future security thrown into doubt as all of the money drifts into fewer and fewer hands.
Between the harsh reality and the incitement to riot, people are at each other’s necks.
So we have the holiday for Martin, that’s nice, and we have President Obama, and I think that’s nice too. Progress though? Unfortunately, I think, no, emphatically no.