Many, black people speak about the need to raise themselves up and overcome oppression, about how our country is still steeped in racism and how it is still hard for "the black man" to achieve economic success in today's society except by overcoming extraordinary odds. If black people are still oppressed and are still struggling to achieve, exactly what has the Civil Rights movement accomplished?
The movement has accomplished a great deal, I think. Among other achievements, it has enabled more black people to attend college than ever before and it has created a political framework allowing two black men, a reverend and a General, to run (or consider running) for president. But it really appears as if the movement has amounted to nothing because it has not destroyed the critical perceptions that necessitated its existence.
Racist cops in the inner cities still follow black people around as if they were all criminals and store owners still follow black shoppers in fear that they will be shoplifted. What is the purpose of affirmative action if black people think they are locked out of a racist job market? And why is it that white people and black people still look at the verdict in the Simpson murder trial as if they lived on two different planets? The Civil Rights movement has not failed in its mission to give more opportunities in life to black people, but it has failed in its attempt to eradicate racial perceptions, one of its central purposes.
The question is, will we ever get rid of racism? I think not. We are stuck in the tradition, passed down to us by our parents, of judging other people by their color. Try as we might, we cannot destroy the fact that, as humans, we make instantaneous judgments based on our initial impressions of others. Martin Luther King's "Dream" is an ideal, but an ideal that will never be reached, at least not until we destroy the background prejudices that pervade our subconscious.
Racism is really a classic example of the prisoner's dilemma. Both white and black people wish to end it, but black people, seeing that racism can translate into oppression, think they must fight fire with fire. As Cornel West says, it is natural for a black person to counter racism with racism. And white people, seeing that black people are also racist, refrain from purging their own attitudes of racist thoughts. Thus neither side of the color line benefits and both sides end up separating form each other.
Beyond racism, are black people and other political minority groups still oppressed? If you take the indirect and circumstantial route, yes. To look at the preponderance of white males in politics and business--the nexus of power in our society--one can reason, perhaps logically, that the lack of qualified minorities is due to a covert effort, fostered by racism, of keeping minorities out of positions of influence.
If you take the direct route, no. Jim Crow laws and legal segregation no longer exist. Black people are no longer the last ones hired and the first ones fired, especially when they own their own businesses or become managers in other businesses. Black people aren't kept out of universities because of their race. In fact, universities are clamoring for minority groups because of their race. The Ku Klux Klan and other race hate groups no longer hold a prominent place in society, if they ever did. No, black people are no longer oppressed, but they sure think they are when they see racism in their lives every day, in the form of police brutality and a legal system that has the tenacious tendency to put one-third of black males in their twenties behind bars.
There is a difference between institutional racism and institutional oppression. Institutional racism, in the guise of Pat Buchanan, inherent in the rhetoric of Charles Murray, and implicit in the image of Willie Horton as the quintessential criminal in America, are words geared at demonizing the black race, provoking other Americans to think of black people as stupid and predisposed to criminal activity. The tools of institutional oppression, in the form of police brutality in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Saint Louis and Chicago, are the sticks and stones which actively hurt the black community and keep it from achieving everything that it can.
Yet it seems as if the black community, as represented by Harvard professor Cornel West, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Benjamin Chavis, Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson, is preoccupied with institutional racism.
Overt institutional racism, the conservative right's natural reaction to the Civil Rights movement (seen in their effort to get rid of affirmative action programs), cannot be destroyed, despite our best efforts. Overt institutional oppression no longer exists; covert institutional oppression does, but it is hard to see, and thus more difficult to legislate against.
The Million Man March recently held in Washington, D.C. is one of the key indicators of how little the Civil Rights movement has achieved in changing our attitudes about one another. To listen to Louis Farrakhan is to hear the use of the words "the white man" when referring to the rest of America. So-called "leaders" like Farrakhan only hinder efforts to bridge the perceived chasm among the races.
At Harvard itself, the Black Student Association is devoted almost entirely to consolidating support among the black community without looking at the common grounds shared by everyone. In a recent piece by Cornel West for the New York Times, West writes, "For most whites, the Million Man March...can only worsen race matters. For them, he [Farrakhan] not only embodies black rage but also black hatred and contempt for whites." Exactly what is the black community mad about? There has never been a time in American history when all members of the black race have had opportunities before them.
This anger by the black community has already translated into what might be referred to as the politics of revenge. Though slavery ended 130 years ago, and legal segregation and Jim Crow laws ended 30 years ago, the ill-will created by these institutions still exists, and expands any time a black person is treated unfairly by a white person. The problem is that the people who committed these racist atrocities have long since died and thus there is not outlet for the black community's intense anger.
Instead, this rage merely seethes and strikes out when provoked in the slightest way. It has proved to be a potent political force. It galvanized hundreds of thousands of black people to march on Washington and incited many to riot when one of their race was treated unjustly. This resentment simply allows the black community to remain steeped in a bad temper about the state of the country. The politics of revenge is easily given over to conspiracy theories and ideas among members of the black community that "the white man" is trying to oppress them.
Black people may point to prejudices harbored by white people over the past 400 years and say, "Do you remember the 1950s," or the years of slavery? And I would respond by saying, "Do you know today?" For anyone who thinks that we still are a racist society, I will gladly concede that much to you, but only in light of the fact that racism merely pervades the outer fringes of American society, not its core.
We will never get rid of racism in politically marginal groups, such as Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads, or the Nation of Islam and the Black Student Association for that matter. Such groups will always see America as a mosaic in which one color matters more than all the rest, instead of a solid unified sculpture. The Civil Rights movement has achieved a lot, but groups such as these hold it back from realizing its true potential.