By: John McWhorter –
The idea is that the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s wasn’t enough, that a shoe still has yet to drop. Today’s Dream is that white America will somehow wake up and understand that racism makes black America’s problems insurmountable. Not in-your-face racism, of course, but structural racism—sometimes termed White Privilege or white supremacy. Racism of a kind that America must get down on its knees and “understand” before we can move forward.
The problem is that this Dream qualifies more as a fantasy. If we are really interested in helping poor black people in America, it’s time to hit Reset.
The Dream I refer to has been expressed with a certain frequency over the past few weeks, after a succession of events that neatly illustrated the chance element in social history. First, a white woman, Rachel Dolezal, bemused the nation with her assertion that she “identifies” as black. Everyone had a grand time objecting that one can’t be black without having grown up suffering the pain of racist discrimination, upon which Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church put a gruesome point on the issue. Dolezal was instantly and justifiably forgotten, after which the shootings motivated the banning of the Confederate flag from the American public sphere.
However, practically before the flags were halfway down their poles, the good-thinking take on things was that this, while welcome, was mere symbolism, and that what we really need to be thinking about is how to get America to finally wake up to—here comes the Dream—structural racism. A typical expression of the Dream is this one, from Maya Dukmasova at Slate: “There is little hope for a meaningful solution to the problem of concentrated poverty until the liberal establishment decides to focus on untangling a different set of pathologies—those inherent in concentrated power, concentrated whiteness, and concentrated wealth.”
Statements like this meet with nods and applause. But since the ’60s, the space between the statements and real life has become ever vaster. What are we really talking about when we speak of a “liberal establishment” making a “decision” to “untangle” notoriously impregnable things such as power, whiteness and wealth?
This is a Dream indeed, and the only reason it even begins to sound plausible is because of the model of the Civil Rights victories of fifty years ago, which teaches us that when it comes to black people, dreaming of an almost unimaginable political and psychological revolution qualifies as progressivism. After all, it worked then, right? So why be so pessimistic as to deny that it could happen again?
But there are times when pessimism is pragmatic. There will be no second Civil Rights revolution. Its victories grew not only from the heroic efforts of our ancestors, but also from a chance confluence of circumstances. Think about it: Why didn’t the Civil Rights victories happen in the 19th century, or the 18th, even—or in the 1920s or 1940s? It’s often said that black people were “fed up” by the ’60s, but we can be quite sure that black people in the centuries before were plenty fed up too.
What tipped things in the 1960s were chance factors, in the same way as recent ones led to a breakthrough on the Confederate flag. Segregation was bad P.R. during the Cold War. Television made abuses against black people more vividly apparent than ever before. Between the 1920s and the late 1960s, immigration to the U.S. had been severely curtailed, so black concerns, while so often ignored, still did not compete with those of other large groups as they do today.
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