Great theatrical lines ring in our ears because they contain kernels of truth. But truth is often uncomfortable and hard to accept. Bill Cosby caught hell when he opined, two decades ago, that part of the problem in racially oppressed communities was that black parents were not taking sufficient responsibility for raising their own children. He did not opine that white society bore no responsibility for discrimination and oppression. But hate came down on him anyway, for arguing that even in oppressed communities parents should be doing a better job of raising their children.
Truth is complex, despite the efforts of commercially driven media to pretend that all of life can be voiced in tight sound bites. The truth is that a child raised by parents who were perfect models under Bill Cosby’s design can still be gunned down in cold blood by an insecure, racist bully with a history of inappropriate and excessive violence, at home and in the workplace, who was allowed by the state to carry a gun, despite being on a loosely supervised course of medication for his self–control problems. But that truth does not contradict Bill Cosby’s truth.
Truth is often uncomfortable. Truth calls on us to change our views or our actions. It is a law of physics that it takes more energy to start an object rolling than to keep it rolling, or to turn a ship than to keep it moving straight. To change our minds requires the effort of real thought. To change our beliefs requires an effort of internal challenge. And taking any action requires changes to our existing behaviors, schedules, relationships.
It is easier to be complacent. We are comfortable with what is familiar. Challenging complacency can be as hard as dealing with truth. Abused women stay with, and often testify in defense of their abusers, taking blame on themselves for the abuse. Modern young women ignore what their mothers and grandmothers suffered to get them to 77 percent of what men earn for the same jobs. Young women haven’t been voting, because they can’t believe that the Tea Bag Republican Party war on women will actually end their rights to own their own bodies.
Middle class blacks, living in integrated suburbs with middle class whites can’t believe that their police chiefs would order cops to not investigate the George Zimmermans of their own neighborhood watch groups. But the Sanford officers at the shooting scene wanted to arrest George Zimmerman. They wanted to do forensic testing, a drug screen, DNA swabs, a medical exam to determine if there was any sidewalk cement residue in his scalp. They wanted to hold his clothes for scientific testing. And to X-ray his nose to see if it had been broken.
But their chief of police told them: “No”. He told them to let Zimmerman go home, to let him take his clothes, and himself, away from custody, to clean up without scientific testing, without medical assessment. In 2012, 48 years after we first started passing significant civil rights legislation, they were told not to hassle a white man who had ‘only’ shot a black boy. The outcome of the June 2013 trial may have been determined by the February 2012 decision of a racist police chief. After the Trayvon Martin murder, how many black parents in integrated neighborhoods wondered to themselves, “Should we be living in this mixed neighborhood, raising our children among white neighbors?”
The Civil Rights movement was built, slowly and painfully, in towns and states ruled by anti-black whites. Medgar Evers and Dr. King and Rosa Parks and many many others, walked the streets, rang door bells, registered voters and then drove them to the polls. They suffered beatings and cross burnings and shootings. Freedom riders road in busses that were fire bombed and in cars that were driven off the road. They led the movement from the streets and lunch counters, not from posh New York TV studios. People joined the movement, rather than watching it on a McMansion flat screen in the bonus room with the built in wetbar.
We cannot fault those who achieve material success. Jesse Jackson marched and organized and took beatings and dodged murder, and fought for rights to a piece of the system. Congressmen and women who put their lives on the line, and paid terrible physical prices for their work should be well paid for trying to continue their efforts at a legislative level. And they earned, and deserve, the congressional lifetime medical care and whatever palliative benefits it provides against lingering pains. But their absence from the field work, from the scut work of organizing and mobilizing has been deeply felt across the nation.
The Civil Rights movement was born and nurtured in churches. Leaders understood and preached that Jesus built his ministry on social and economic justice. But the doors forced open by the Civil Rights movement included doors to lucrative TV ministries. Today’s black church leaders know as clearly as their white brethren that god wants them to enjoy the comfort of private jets and chauffeured limousines, and the adulation of throngs sending “prayer offerings”.
Today’s black church leaders are as far from working the streets as are the young women who don’t know what their mothers fought for. Where Dr. King and Willie Reed challenged mainstream views, today’s ‘leaders’ join the mainstream chorus and preach anti-gay hate and condemn women’s independence. Where Civil Rights leaders collected beatings and bullets, today’s leaders collect “prayer offerings”.
The Civil Rights movement built on models provided by the labor movement of the first half of the 20th Century, which, slowly and painfully, organized workers in factories controlled by anti-labor owners. Those movements succeeded, and worker and black middle classes grew, and grew comfortable. Union workers wanted the houses, boats, new cars, and high calorie diets their new success gave them. Civil Rights workers wanted to enjoy the rights they fought for.
Another truth: Segregation and class divisiveness isn’t just driven by ignorance.It is good business. The businesses who use the most undocumented workers are the first to fund anti-immigrant laws. They tell men that women can’t handle the same work. They tell ‘skilled’ workers to look down on the ‘unskilled.’ Pitting workers against each other with racial, sexual and class claims keeps them from banding together to work against low wages and dangerous conditions. Because it’s good business, whenever there is an opportunity, business will try to regain ground lost to labor, to women’s rights, to racial equality.
We have five overtly resegregationist, corporate ‘justices’ on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Tea Bag Republican Party has an official War on Women. For-profit televangelist megachurches have coopted the churches that bore and nurtured the Civil Rights movement, and have replaced activism with show business. Workers are being robbed. Women are being controlled. And racist police are authorizing brutality from Florida to Arizona and beyond.
Another truth: Complacency kills. There was a time when the world watched oppressed Americans march in the streets, sit in at auto plants and lunch counters, and face the guns of National Guard troops. Now, comfortably oppressed Americans watch as other people, in Benghazi, and Tahrir Square, and Tiananmen Square, remind us of the spirit we have lost.
Our complacency reflects the vast comforts we have. We have come so far from the days before Brown v. Board of Education, before the Montgomery bus boycott, before Lester Maddox and his axe handles and Bull Connor and his dogs and hoses. But we have not come so far that a police chief can’t tell his officers to let a white man off, without investigation, after shooting a black boy. We have not come so far that states cannot pass laws trying to make being Latino a crime, or requiring hospital supervision for women taking birth control pills.
The business community has learned to fight back, against workers’ rights, against women’s rights, against civil rights of all sorts. The business community has taken control of our legislatures and our Supreme Court. But they have done that largely because we have become so complacent that we no longer organize, we no longer vote, we no longer demand what we demanded just a few decades ago.
Friday, 26 July 2013
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