[The following is excerpted from a larger work.]
Money versus Human Rights
Human rights issues of all types depend upon a singular factor for their resolution: a significant change in the hearts and minds of those who act to deprive the members of the affected group of their liberties. Laws might be passed to combat the problem. Money and material resources might well be apportioned by authorities, in an effort to uplift those who are negatively impacted. However, until there is a prevailing attitude of inclusion, the human rights issue will remain in force.
In 1972, through the release of a very controversial recording, John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed loudly that “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” In short order, the National Organization for Women (NOW) praised Lennon and Ono for the “strong pro-feminist statement” forwarded by the song. Noting the apparent success of the liberation struggles of Black Americans, which culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which also included a clause protecting women from sex discrimination) and subsequent legislative acts that specifically addressed social dynamics motivated by racism, the move seems a deft attempt to provide the Women’s Liberation Movement with momentum from those earlier victories.
Well into the twenty-first century, women continue to struggle toward the attainment of a secure hold upon self-determination — arguably, with their having gained little ground since the days of the more coherent Women’s Liberation Movement. Given the parallels between women’s current state of deprivation of their liberties and the continued social oppression of Black Americans (despite voluminous acts of legislation), women might benefit from examining an insider’s take on how those earlier successes of Black Americans’ liberation struggles served to actually undermine subsequent progress toward true social parity.
Laws don’t change people; people change people. It’s an issue of hearts and minds.
The Civil Rights Movement – waiting to overcome
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States might be seen by some to be the realization of the dream held by those who fought for the freedom from oppression of Black Americans in what became known as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; however, in many key respects, the actual movement itself was an abject failure. Even the president himself has to wrestle with intense opposition to his policies that’s motivated primarily by racist posturing against his identification as a Black American. In spite of illusory political gains, Black Americans as a group have not been able to achieve any real degree of social parity, nor for long maintain any meaningful trend of gains. Rates of unemployment and personal indebtedness remain significantly higher for blacks than they are for whites – while the income gap between Black Americans and White Americans continues to widen. The long-term effects of the Affordable Care Act upon the previously flagging level of health care insurance coverage for Black Americans remain to be seen.
The reason for the failure of the Civil Rights Movement is simple: changes in the law had no net effect upon the oppressive treatment of Black Americans in everyday society. Behavior cannot be legislated. Instead, legislation can only provide for relief and correction, once laws have been transgressed. Also, if those who would enforce such laws do so while maintaining at best only half-hearted agreement with them (in other words, if their hearts aren’t in their jobs), then lack of spirited enforcement serves to effectively nullify those laws.
When the groundswell of the Black Americans’ actions that were focused upon the attainment of their freedom from oppression reached a point at which the leaders of the land could no longer ignore it, the governments (federal, state and local) did what they do best — they acceded — passing a few laws and throwing a bit of money at the Negro Problem. By shifting the focus of the problem from a human rights issue to one that is more about economics, those who controlled the resources (the flow of money, the flow of information about the status of the problem, etc.) were successful at obscuring the fact that there was not much they could do to address the root causes. The hearts and minds of a privileged class of society were vested in the continued oppression of Black Americans.
At the same time, and perhaps most importantly, the seeming change of attitude adopted by the formerly oppressive regime (i.e., the government) induced Black Americans to slowly become lax in maintaining the spirit that infused their initially successful surge. Mistaking a single victory in battle for the peace that follows the close of a war, increasing numbers of individuals within the Black American community began to celebrate its legislative success by devaluing and taking for granted previously prohibited (or restricted) rights: the right to equal education, the right to vote, etc. Leaving behind the virtuous ideals that were the true beginning of self-determination, younger members of the Black American community — having no visceral understanding of the extent of the suffering previously endured by their parents and predecessors — began to value luxury, consumerism, and the ability to waste (time, resources, etc.) with seeming impunity.
However, the government leaders also understood that money always eventually flows back to the well from which it springs — and in that manner, what the government did most effectively was to buy itself a little time. One must appreciate the nature of representative governments: they are comprised of individuals who must be seen to provide solutions to the problems of the day. Whether a particular solution has a lasting effect is not of as much importance (to a politician) as is the perception that a momentarily successful solution is associated with one’s time in office. Thus, if the solution to any given problem actually depends solely upon a monetary investment by those who are mostly disinterested in the problem itself (because they suffer no direct impact from it), it’s just a matter of time before the same problem resurfaces anew…often with a vengeance.
In actuality, even the use of the name The Civil Rights Movement proves to be somewhat confusing to those young Black Americans who did not live through the era. The popular movement was not at all about civil rights, as much as it was about freedom from oppression and the right to individual self-determination — these are basic human rights! And there was no coherent group of individuals who called themselves The Civil Rights Movement. Instead, a grassroots movement of individuals organized themselves (under several distinct platforms) to protest the treatment of Black Americans. They worked to uplift the hearts and minds of their people, employing the concepts of discipline and integrity so that their protests might be credible ones. With Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X being among the most iconic, the leaders spoke only in terms of “freedom”…seeking to secure the freedom from systematized oppression for the descendants of former slaves. While the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 served to codify the government’s response to these powerful and righteous protests, it also provided a name for the urgent social movement that brought about its instantiation.
Returning our focus to the present day, in an article dated August 14, 2014, author Emily Bazelon, a “Slate [magazine] senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School,” offered an objective opinion of the oppressive climate encountered by Black Americans in everyday life:
I’ve been thinking about something related but different: Why writing about legal issues for twenty years has taught me that black people are at risk from the police in a way that the rest of us are not — and how that shapes my own choices.
Maybe the unfairness I’m talking about is obvious to you, whatever your race. There is plenty of evidence that black men, in particular, bear the brunt of arrests, convictions, and long sentences, out of proportion to their crime rate. The divide opens early in life: Black kids are far more likely to be suspended, expelled, and funneled into the juvenile justice system than nonblack kids. Again, the disparity can’t be explained by their behavior: It reflects the heavy hand of systemic bias. There are incredibly depressing studies suggesting that “racial bias also factors into officers’ split-second decision to shoot a suspect,” as Rebecca Leber lays out in the New Republic. It does not help that police officers tend to be white more than the communities they serve (especially outside of large cities). In Ferguson, for example, two-thirds of the residents are black, and fifty of fifty-three police officers are white.
Ms. Bazelon’s mention of “Ferguson” was in fact a reference to a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, where, on the night of August 9, 2014, police shot and killed an unarmed eighteen-year-old named Michael Brown — under highly questionable circumstances. This incident occurred as one of a spate of police-involved killings of Black males during the summer of 2014.
Two generations beyond the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, with numerous laws on the books to protect Black Americans from institutional racism, now it seems that the enforcers (of those laws) themselves have begun to exact revenge. Blacks in America are still waiting — with an ever-decreasing patience — to overcome. The climate is not a good one.
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- Hoenig, Chris. “Oprah: President Obama Disrespected Because He’s Black, Racism ‘Has to Die'” Diversity Inc. Diversity Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Aug. 2014. <http://www.diversityinc.com/news/oprah-president-obama-disrespected-hes-black-racism-die/>.
- Logan, Amanda, and Tim Westrich. “The State of Minorities.” How Are Minorities Faring in the Economy? Center for American Progress, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 09 Aug. 2014. <http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2008/04/29/4283/the-state-of-minorities/>.
- Bowie, Lillian. “The Economic Status of Black Women in America.” NAACP. NAACP, 13 June 2011. Web. 10 Aug. 2014. <http://www.naacp.org/blog/entry/the-economic-status-of-black-women-in-america>.
- Waldron, Travis. “The African-American Unemployment Crisis Continues.” ThinkProgress RSS. Think Progress, 3 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 Aug. 2014. <http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2012/11/03/1129721/african-american-unemployment-crisis/>.
- “About the Law: The Affordable Care Act.” United States Department of Health and Human Services. United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2014. Web. 09 Aug. 2014. <http://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/rights/>.
- Gaines, Kevin K. “Racial Uplift Ideology in the Era of ‘the Negro Problem'” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center, n.d. Web. 14 Aug. 2014. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1865-1917/essays/racialuplift.htm>.
- “An American Dilemma.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Aug. 2014. Web. 14 Aug. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_Dilemma>.
- Bazelon, Emily. “Twenty Years of Covering the Law Has Taught Me This: Think Twice Before Calling the Police.” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group LLC., 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Aug. 2014. <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/08/michael_brown_eric_garner_debra_harrell_just_three_examples_of_why_i_don.1.html>.