In April 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated many in the Black community were still hopefully optimistic that America had turned the corner on institutionalized white racism. After all, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1965 were humungous political steps choreographed by King in addressing Black political enfranchisement and social empowerment.
The same was true in 2008 when Americans came together to elect their very first Black president in an historical moment that promised, once and for all, to finish the unfinished tasks of the Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King marched.
Alas, we were dead wrong on both counts. Political strategists and social commentators either misunderstood the real deep, systemic, entrenched and pervasive nature of white racism in America or were too idealistic and unrealistic in their expectations about how difficult it would be to dismantle or put racism on the defensive.
Or maybe it was a big dose and admixture of both.
After all the effects of the 1877 Compromise that allowed, encouraged and supported Jim Crow in its horrid, brutal existence for the next 78 years was not a distant memory in 1960 or 1968 when King's protesting voice was silenced. That should have told us that white racism is perhaps the worst from of chronic social and political cancer to afflict America and its rapid regeneration and sustainability is due to its ability to metastases and infect every part of American society.
So how did we come to this juncture in American history where white racism is as alive and well as it was in the 1950s and 1960s? For one thing, the Civil Rights struggles of that period focused on reforming and adjusting the social construct that allowed white supremacist behavior to spawn Jim Crowism and Black oppression, especially in the antebellum South.
The end result, in my humble view, was that the system of institutionalized racism was never dismantled or put on the garbage heap of history. It was allowed to melt into the background, to adapt and change its strategy and tactics to meet the changing social and political climate of the times. But it never, ever went away. And too, America as a while has tended to ignore, conveniently forget and pretend that racism was never an issue.
Our collective Peter Panesque attitude to white racism is the dangerous behavior that has allowed this putrid practice to persist and grow more fetid with time. The simple truth is that America and Americans have never, ever confronted, acknowledged or honestly and candidly discussed its racist past, much less its present. We have not grown up.
Moreover, while white Southern racism was overt, belligerent and brutal, Northern racism was arguably less severe, more covert and more hypocritical. So as thousands of Backs bolted from the South and Jim Crow's harsh laws and practices it was like jumping from the hot frying pan into the hot fire.
Blacks arriving in the North seeking a better life were granted a kind of "contingent citizenship" -- as long as they behaved a certain way as outlined and permitted by white people and laws, then they were all right. If they stepped out of line or forgot "their place," Blacks in the North were just as harshly dealt with as in the South. It was not as if white people in the North welcomed the hordes of unwashed Black former slaves from the South with welcoming, opened arms.
The other fact is that national education textbooks have historically demeaned Black people. White scholars have written reams about the supposed inherent inferiority of Black people and their lack of intelligence. Point is that from generation to generation, from the cradle to the grave, white children have been brought up to see Black people as "monkeys, coons, bucks, mammies, thugs, animals, monsters, pickananies and brutes."
Black people were called lazy because they worked slowly and seized every opportunity not to work during slavery. Outraged and self-righteous white slave owners could not understand why Blacks, bought and sold like cattle, beaten and brutalized to work without pay from dusk to until dawn, did not want to work for them. And they called Black people stupid!
Insecure white men looked on Black males and concluded that they were prone to debauchery, lusted after white women, and could not be trusted. At the very zenith of hypocrisy, while they raped Black women, fathered bastard children with them and treated them as disposable property to satisfy their own lust, white men still demeaned Black women at every turn.
All of these conjunct of facts, behaviors and attitudes were entrenched in the psyche of white people over hundreds of years. White racism, manifested in attitudes of white supremacist tendencies towards Blacks and others, has been a pillar of normal social interrelations in America between Blacks and whites for centuries. America is the only country in the world that elevated the privilege and supposed supremacy of one race over another and relegated that supposed "inferior race" through brutality, violence and a systematic under-devaluation of the individual to that of national policy.
In essence, therefore, in the eyes of many, many white people today, Blacks are still chattel and not "like us."
But notwithstanding of all of this there was, arguably, definite social and economic progress during the era of the Civil Rights Movement no matter how limited. For example, there was significant movement in Black education as predominately Black colleges sprung up all over the United States. There were also improvements in housing and healthcare. But by 1970 all that vanished. All the progress, all the hope and all the optimism were gone.