I’m very slowly working my way through Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, and there’s a lot to digest. But what keeps resonating is how bitterly people resented the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how the Civil Rights Act of 1966 was reviled in inflammatory language, and the mass hysteria about civil rights in general that were a part of the time. It’s interesting to me, because the Right has lately a habit of trying to co-opt Martin Luther King, Jr. but reading about the backlash and hysteria that voted out liberals in 1966 who rode in on a tide of goodwill toward Johnson and his Great Society two years earlier is telling; King was far too often characterized as “Black Hitler” for wanting things like the ability of black people in Illinois to buy a house in whichever neighborhood they wanted. Much like the Civil War gets reframed as an argument of States Rights, and there are those who will protest wide-eyed that it wasn’t at all about slavery (even if they squirm when you point out that the Right the States who seceded wanted was the Right to own slaves…), the turmoil of the mid-60s far too frequently becomes about the war in Vietnam. The official narrative seems to go thus: King marched on Washington in 1963, the Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, and the nation joined hands and that was the end of the race question, until uppity Negro draft-dodgers with afros had to go and burn down their own houses.
I keep hearing that the United States is a post-racial society. One well-meaning. conservative acquaintance even tried to ensure me that opposition to Barack Obama is almost never rooted in racism. “Racism is a relic of the distant past.” It isn’t. And there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize the President. But when that same acquaintance later goes on a rant on his facebook page about how Obama isn’t President and links a sketchy youtube video as proof; my eyes narrow and I purse my lips. Racism is insidious and persistent and is not simply removed by having good intentions. That this person would believe dubious youtube videos about the President’s eligibility (in a nice bit of Birther goalpost shifting, this argument relies on the ridiculous assertion that Obama isn’t a “Natural Born” US Citizen as some Founding Father intended because his father wasn’t a US Citizen) instead of the fact that he was sworn in as President of the Chief Justice of The Supreme Court of the United States reminds me how stubborn and pernicious belief can be.
Reading through history reminds me of how much people rush to pretend bad decisions, bad judgment, and prejudice are a thing of the past. The man denounced as a cause of violence, despite his non-violence stance, and called a “black Hitler” is now nearly universally acknowledged as a hero, and race-baiting, loathsome demagogues as prominent as Glenn Beck rush to lionize, all the while pretending that King would have been on their side. Now, the summer of 1966 wasn’t quite 47 years ago. The good people in Illinois who wrote to their congressmen and senators in fear of what they saw as an encroaching black tide trying to wash away everything they’d worked for haven’t all died off. Nor do I think they all simultaneously experienced a wave of enlightenment. There were bills to pay, and when they lost, it didn’t end up being quite the scenario they feared. And when it became unpopular to say unpleasant things about those people, they were quieter about them. But I don’t think those sentiments just went away. Even if many people had their minds changed about a great number of things, belief is persistent and insidious. Humans are bad at judging probabilities, and when something happens to confirm a long-held prejudice they’d abandoned, well it seems like a pattern. It seems like they were right the whole time.
I’m not going to waste your time discussing the recent article in Philly magazine about “being white in Philadelphia,” except that as a human who is admittedly bad at judging probability, the arguments, however well-meaning, seemed to echo those same well-meaning arguments by the racists in Cicero, Illinois in 1966 who thought their neighborhood would be destroyed if even one black person resides there.
If there’s anything my reading has crystalized for me yet again, it’s this: we like to pretend that good people don’t ever really think or do anything hateful, that they’ve been ideologically pure since birth. But it isn’t just some people spoiling it for the rest of us. We have to stop pretending that people who are racist, people who are sexist, people who are homophobic are some abominable other. They are us.