Day Four: If Not For The Generosity of the Powerful..
White America's Message to Itself
Today, one of the directors at my job presented an article to me that she thought I might like. Entitled, "The Election that LBJ Won," it links Obama's probable victory to LBJ's signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is, in and of itself, not terribly problematic. But the author, the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, actually takes it quite a few steps further and uses the occasion of Barack's impending triumph as cause to celebrate LBJ's progressiveness - even going so far as to include the following sentence: An Obama win would complete a journey begun 40 years ago.
Here we go again. During the Democratic primaries Hillary Clinton (who, as I've written, almost certainly cast her vote for John McCain this morning) placed former President Johnson's importance to the Civil Rights struggle above that of Martin Luther King Jr. This bit of stupidity, in part, cost her a great deal of African-American support. I'm sure Hillary and Cohen are expressing what millions of white liberals assume to be true, but here's the problem: Apart from being tacky, arrogant and oblivious, the idea that LBJ is primarily responsible for the 1964 Voting Rights Act is just plain wrong.
One important truism that the self-congratulating Clintons and Cohens of the world don't seem to get is a basic axiom that Frederick Douglass realized over a century and a half ago, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Any form of Civil rights legislation that has been passed in this country, or around the world, is the direct result of a ceaseless barage of activist agitation. You're not working a 40-hour week because the aristocrats who owned the means of production suddenly decided to lighten up on your forebears some 70 years ago. Union organization made that possible. Women all across the country aren't voting today because Woodrow Wilson woke up one morning and decided that the 19th amendment just had to be ratified. That was the direct result of the suffering of suffragists. The same is true of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Johnson didn't hand over the South to the Republicans with the stroke of a pen because he was feeling charitable. He signed because he recognized that the writing was already on the wall.
Of course, by now, anyone paying attention should come to expect this kind of clueless arrogance. Those who, for whatever reason, feel a kinship with the powerful will often attribute kindness to them when history doesn't. You see this when white Southerners pat themselves on the backs for ending slavery, or when men congratulate themselves for deigning to allow women to enter the workplace. Recently, I received an email from a good friend. He'd shared one of my blog entries with a white person. This white person wanted my friend to remind me that "if it wasn't for white people, Obama wouldn't be where he is today." So there it is. Whites, having created and long benefited from this country's still-functional system of racial injustice would like to receive credit when a black person manages to successfully navigate it.
At any rate, despite what Richard Cohen and people of his ilk may wish to believe, the journey to African-American freedom and equality began a great deal more than 40 years ago, and, even with a Obama victory, it is FAR from complete. Further, it did not start at the behest of powerful men like Lyndon Baines Johnson. If Mr. Cohen, stricken, as he appears to be, by liberal, 60's nostalgia, is feeling the urge to thank those responsible, he need only take a drive down I-95 and visit the final resting spots of those who paid the ultimate price for equality.
Blaxplanation Disclaimer: A friend introduced to me the possibility that, when I write critically of white America, what I'm really doing is railing against the powerful. I quickly reminded him that in this country, to have white skin is to automatically enjoy advantages that non-whites don't have. This white privilege, as it has been labled, is nothing if not power.