Civil rights activists known as the Freedom Riders disembark from their bus (marked Dallas), en route from Montgomery, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi, as they seek to enforce integration by using ‘white only’ waiting rooms at bus stations, 26th May 1961. (Photo by Daily Express/Archive Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The approach of the federal holiday recognizing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and work means this is a good time to think about the difference in equality and equity for Black Americans and the role conservatives play in the fight for equity.
Equality offers all groups the same opportunities and resources without recognizing that some groups or people start at different levels and may need additional or different resources to achieve success. Equity recognizes differing backgrounds and circumstances and provides resources for each group to succeed regardless of starting point.
The soft racism of bootstrap survival — the conservative narrative that America is a nation of equality — continues to plague the quest to establish equity for Black Americans.
The message developed by conservatives has hewed to ’King’s prediction on the 1965 passage of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act: “There is no more civil rights movement . . . President Johnson signed it out of existence when he signed the voting rights bill.”
King, no doubt, did not mean his statement literally but conservatives used the passage of the Voting Rights Act and its predecessor, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to craft the message that America is “color blind” and the American dream is open to anyone with a strong work ethic. Racial biases and discrimination existed, conservatives said, in the past and in the Old South of slavery and Jim Crow.
In her essay titled “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall points out the conservative movement began to assume the mantle for the uplifting of Black Americans by making the argument of a “formal equality.”
According to the conservative narrative, with legal discrimination a thing of the past, the only ones Black people can blame for success or failure were themselves. And initiatives enacted to implement the legal gains of the 1960s, such as affirmative action, majority-minority congressional districts and minority business enterprise programs, have been portrayed as the handiwork of super-liberal elites intent on creating a mommy-state for Black Americans.
Both President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush rolled back programs intended to close the gap between the start Black Americans had in the U.S. in slavery and to institute an equitable society. Conservatives successfully tied the theory of fiscal conservatism with a national ‘do it yourself’ ideology to undermine programs like affirmative action. Court-ordered busing, used to integrate Black city children into better-funded suburban — and largely white — schools, and vice versa, is a thing of the past.
At the same time, Reagan’s War on Drugs further marginalized Black people by presenting drugs as an inner-city problem and led to an increase in the incarceration of Black men. President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program focused on testing and results, punishing schools lacking in resources, many of which are in majority Black communities. The election of Barack Obama as president in 2008 has been presented by conservatives as evidence America has become a “post racial” society, rather than highlighting that Obama’s success is an exception rather than a rule.
In fact, little has changed since the 1968 Kerner Commission Report on urban unrest reported America had “two societies, separate and unequal.” Right-wing reactions to largely peaceful protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and other police killings of Black citizens have been portrayed by conservatives as violent uprisings akin to, or worse than, the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection against the government at the U.S. Capitol.
Conservatives in Congress hold up the passage of the “For the People” Act, a sweeping bill with provisions to protect the right to vote by minority groups. Although the measure passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, it stalled in the equally divided Senate. Meanwhile around the nation, Republican-dominated state legislatures have made the teaching of Black history illegal, labeling it dangerous ‘critical race theory’ designed to harm white students. In fact, critical race theory isn’t taught below the graduate school level, much less in primary schools.
In Tennessee, groups with disarming names like “Moms For Liberty” advocate the removal from school libraries of books about King, arguing that education about the civil rights movement is in itself racist and urging school systems to be “color blind.” Black citizens still lag whites in obtaining higher education and make up a disproportionate percentage of the working poor.
And most recently, the GOP-led Tennessee legislature has carved up a congressional district, placing Nashville voters, many of whom are Black, into the same district as rural East Tennesseans. It’s safe to assume these groups of people have different interests and concerns and that whoever is elected won’t fairly represent both groups.
On Monday, take time to recognize the achievements of King, but be cognizant the fight continues for Black Americans to realize the same access to success as their white counterparts.
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