In 1964, Dr Martin Luther King Jr predicted that within 25 years, the United States would probably elect its first black president. He was optimistic, in the wake of the gains of the civil rights movement, that the country was progressing. Four years later, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on 4 April, 1968. At the time of his death, he could not have predicted that a draft-avoiding, woman-chasing, publicity-addicted real estate developer with a documented history of discrimination against African Americans would one day rise to power.
Even before King’s death, however, a white backlash against the victories of the civil rights movement had begun. King himself had become unpopular among many whites who viewed the way he linked the Vietnam War to poverty and racism as an unacceptable transgression. Yet, real change was happening. More African Americans were being elected to political office. College attendance was rising among young blacks. Home purchases were increasing. And, according to surveys of the times, more whites were tolerant of racial integration.
It is therefore a surprise to some that 50 years after King’s death, the black community has stagnated and even reversed in many areas. As economist Valerie Wilson notes, “Race far too often remains a deciding factor in the economic status of African Americans” in many areas of life. Black unemployment, from the late 1960s to the present, continues to be about twice that of whites even when controlling for education attainment. The Economic Policy Institute notes the black median household income in 2016 was 61 per cent that of whites. This is 2 per cent lower than the 63 per cent in 1968. The EPI also notes that black poverty is 2.5 times higher than white poverty, only slightly lower than in 1968. In addition, while high-profile police killings of African Americans remain a serious issue, the entire criminal justice system, particularly disproportionate incarceration rates, has deeply harmed the black community.
Another dispiriting sign of the times is the rise of racist organisations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, there are more than 600 white supremacist groups in the United States, a number that has grown since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. The alt-right had its mainstream ambitions facilitated by one of its biggest boosters, Steve Bannon, becoming a top adviser to the president.
Trump’s justice department has supported voter suppression, withdrawn consent decrees that sought to end racist police abuse, has fallen back on civil rights enforcement, and in countless other ways turned back the clock.
What accounts for this reversal of fortune is a multitude of issues that cannot easily or quickly be addressed. First, the political environment has shifted dramatically to the right since the 1980s. Ronald Reagan dog-whistled his way into the White House. With a wink and a nod, Reagan advocated “states’ rights”, an end to welfare cheats, a crackdown on street criminals, and pushing back on the civil rights agenda. Subsequent presidents – Republican and Democrat – came with an agenda of welfare reform and punitive crime bills. Anti-liberal policies were only partially mitigated by liberal black elected officials and grassroots activism.
Unsurprisingly, the election of Obama was met with jubilation in the black community but seen as a final nail in the coffin of white privilege by many whites. The birth of the Tea Party movement, with a distinct racial edge (despite protestations to the contrary), as well as the birther movement, demonstrated that post-racial talk was just that. Obama’s timidity when it came to political battles and his hesitation to employ a racial critique regarding policy contributed to the stall.
All of this, however, was just the opening act. As seething anger grew in white pockets around the nation, it became clear that dog whistles were not enough to capture the raw fear and panic that the Republicans had sowed for decades. The nation’s number-one birther peddler parlayed that racist trope into a victorious presidential run. Trump did not create the atmosphere of racial resentment; it created him.
And now, in a time when political coherence and nous is needed the most, the black community is organisationally, ideologically, and politically ill prepared for the current backlash. The existing civil rights community is not so much wrong in its demands as much as it lacks the daring and verve the moment calls for. The Black Lives Matter movement was a much needed political jolt during the Obama era. It correctly argued that ending police harassment and the killings of African Americans would require a radical public policy agenda – a position the administration was hesitant to take. But the movement’s demands also went beyond policing issues and called for a sweeping public policy programme that addressed everything from access to education, to better housing opportunities, and employment equity. These are the right polices – it just needs a more assertive, electorally engaged, cross-generational, community-based black leadership to see it through. There’s a lot to be learnt from MLK himself.
Professor Clarence Lusane is chair of the political science department at Howard University
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