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June 10, 2010

Julian Bond: Racism is alive & well in America

Bond“Jim Crow may be dead, but racism is alive and well. If you’re black in America, you can still follow the rules and not win the game,” said noted civil rights activist Julian Bond last week.

“It is almost 50 years to the date that I was arrested at the segregated cafeteria in Atlanta’s City Hall, and less than a few days since the newly nominated Republican Senate candidate from Kentucky said the law which ever since has protected me and others like me from being arrested again was wrongly decided. The more things change, the more they remain the same,” said Bond in a keynote address at the Pitt-sponsored Race in America: Restructuring Inequality conference, held here June 3-6.

With sobering facts and a sprinkling of humor, the former U.S. senator from Georgia and chair emeritus of the NAACP led the crowd of several hundred at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall on a sweeping verbal tour of African-American history in a speech titled “The Road to Freedom: From Alabama to Obama.”

“For almost all of my adult life, I’ve been engaged in what might be called ‘race work,’ fighting to make justice and fairness a reality for everyone,” said Bond, a National Freedom Award recipient who also is distinguished professor and scholar-in-residence at American University and professor of history at the University of Virginia.

He laid out a litany of strategies for black people today based on the recommendations of his role model, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the founders of the NAACP.

“In 1905 Dr. DuBois proclaimed, ‘We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaints, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong — this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty, and we must follow it,’” Bond said.

In addition, blacks must work to stop the curtailment of political rights; learn to vote effectively; organize business cooperation; build schools and increase interest in education; bring blacks and labor unions to mutual understanding; study African-American history, and combat crime within the black community, Bond said.

“That these have proven successful is more than evident. We live in a very different and much better country than DuBois did a century ago. The racial picture in America has improved remarkably in my lifetime, so much that a black man has been elected president of the United States,” Bond said. “But, paradoxically, Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 has convinced many that all racial barriers and restrictions have been vanquished and we have entered a racial nirvana across the land. I’m here to dispel that notion. Those who say race is history have it exactly backwards: History is race. And America is race, from its symbolism to its substance.”

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the event that introduced Martin Luther King to the world. “Four days after Rosa Parks stood up for justice by sitting down, the boycott began. King understood how significant it would be,” Bond said. “At the first mass meeting, King declared, ‘When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say there lived a race of people, of black people, who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights, and thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.’

“King did not exaggerate. Montgomery was the beginning of a mass movement that destroyed segregation and permanently changed our world.”

That movement also spawned sweeping federal legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“The spirit of the civil rights movement imbues any election. But this spirit was especially evident in the momentous election of 2008. The Civil Rights Act made discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity or religion illegal. Another act soon followed which made discrimination based on age illegal,” Bond noted. “The major presidential candidates in both sides’ primaries included a black man, a woman, an Hispanic, a Mormon and a man who became his party’s nominee who would have been the oldest person elected to the presidency and, for a first for his party, he chose a woman for his running mate.”

It is evidence of such progress that makes one look back on the period 1955-65 with some pride, he said.

“Those were the days when the politicians from both parties supported the struggle for civil rights; now they struggle to be civil. Those were the days when banks loaned money to people; not like these days when the people loan money to banks. Those were the days when we were powered by our values, and not valued for our power. Those were the days when some people gambled with their own money in Las Vegas; today some people gamble with our money on Wall Street. Those were the days when we had a war on poverty and not a war on the poor. Those were the days when the news media really was fair and balanced and not just mouthpieces for the misinformed,” said Bond, whose speech was interrupted several times by applause.

Yet, such nostalgia belies the realities of life for black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, he cautioned. “In those days the law, the courts, the schools, every institution favored whites. This was white supremacy,” Bond said. “The chance to test and prove myself did come my way in 1960 as it came to thousands of other black men and women as we joined a whole movement against white supremacy that had deep, long roots.”

The United States now is 14 decades past the post-Civil War’s Reconstruction era, the single period in American history in which the national government used armed might to enforce the civil rights of black Americans, he said.

“Then, 115 years ago, black Americans faced prospects eerily similar to those we face today. It was 30 years after Reconstruction. The 19th century was winding down. White America was growing weary of worrying about the welfare of the newly freed slaves, tired of fighting to secure their right to vote, tired of fighting for their right to attend a pubic school. Then, as now, a race-weary nation thought this problem could best be solved if left to the individual states,” Bond said.

“Then, as now, racist demagogues walked on in. Then, as now, minorities and immigrants became scapegoats for real and imagined economic distress. Then a reign of state-sanctioned and private terror, including literal human sacrifice, swept across the South to reinforce white supremacy. That’s when the heavy hand of racial segregation descended across the South — a ‘cotton curtain’ that separated blacks from education, from opportunity, but not from hope.”

It was at that point the movement articulated by DuBois in the 20th century’s infancy took shape. His plan was incorporated into the new interracial NAACP, founded in 1909.

“Black Americans generally have followed this prescription for action: pursuing civil rights, economic justice and entrance into the mainstream of American life. The NAACP soon developed an aggressive strategy of litigation aimed at striking down racial restrictions, triumphing in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education,” Bond said. “That decision effectively ended segregation’s legality. It also gave a nonviolent army the license to challenge segregation’s morality as well. From Brown in 1954 forward, the movement expanded its targets, tactics and techniques.”

After King came on the scene to lead the 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycotts, he articulated a new tactic to fight segregation: nonviolent resistance, which required direct action and mass participation. “In this period gains were won at lunch counters and movie theatres, bus stations and polling places, and the fabric of legal segregation became undone,” Bond said.

“That movement was the second Reconstruction, a reconstruction whose ripples were felt far beyond the Southern states and whose victories paved the way for other social protests: The anti-war movement of the 1960s drew its earliest foot soldiers from the Southern freedom marchers, and the women’s rights movement took many of its cues and much of its momentum from the Southern movement for civil rights,” he said.

“But like the first Reconstruction, the second one ended when the national purpose waivered and reaction swept the land,” he maintained.

In 1968 the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson to investigate the causes and prescribe the cures for the 1967 riots, concluded that white racism was the single most important cause of continued racial inequality in income, housing, employment, education and life chances between blacks and whites.

“Within a few short years, the growing number of blacks and other minorities and women pushing for entry into the academy, the media, business, government and other traditionally white male institutions created a backlash in discourse over race. The previously privileged majority spoke in anger and resentment in having to share space with the historically excluded,” Bond said.

“Petulant leaders began to reformulate and redefine the terms of discussion: No longer was the Kerner Commission’s description of the problem accepted. Any indictment of white America could be abandoned: Black people did it, did it to the country, did it to themselves. Black behavior, not white racism, became the reason why blacks and whites lived in separate worlds. Racism retreated and pathology advanced. The burden of racial problem-solving shifted from racism’s creators to its victims. In a kind of nonsensical tautology we’ve heard again and again, these people are poor because they are pathological; they are pathological because they are poor,” he said.

“Thus, America’s most privileged population — white men — suddenly became a victim class. Aggressive blacks and pushy women became responsible for America’s demise. This perversion of reality occurred as the result of an organized campaign that continues along until today.”

Such reactionary politics, over time, have redefined America’s so-called enemies.

“Opposition to government, especially opposition to Washington government, succeeded opposition to Communism as the secular religion. The United Nations, Washington bureaucrats, gays and lesbians, supporters of minority and women’s rights replaced the Soviet Union as the ‘evil empire,’ and together these became the energy driving the callous coalition that captured Congress in 1994 and to a large extent are the energy driving the tea baggers today,” Bond said.

Just as President Obama’s victory did not herald a post-civil rights America, it did not and could not end structural inequality or racist attitudes. “Indeed there is evidence that it fomented them. Obama is to the Tea Party as the moon is to werewolves,” Bond said. “The rise in the number of hate groups in the United States since his election is unprecedented. We saw hate on display last summer in town halls and tea parties across the country, subsidized by corporations and their well-funded fear machine. Our politics has been poisoned by armed and paranoid self-described patriots, drawn from the Taliban wing of American politics. We used to call them Birchers, now we know them as ‘birthers,’ still spreading lies and spreading myths. The real issue for many opponents today is that we now have a president whom they believe is guilty of governing while black.”

Bond noted that Tea Party members are 99 percent white. They see the nation’s demographics turning them into a minority and they don’t like it.

“Having demanded citizenship papers from the president, it is not surprising these self-styled freedom lovers would demand papers from anyone in America who doesn’t look like them,” Bond said, referring to the new Arizona immigration law.

“So if you tell me the Tea Party has nothing to do with race, I’ll tell you that you’ve been drinking something and it isn’t tea. They say they want their country back. One might ask: What was that country like? In their country, I couldn’t eat at a lunch counter. I couldn’t attend the University of Virginia, let alone teach there. If Obama represents the end of the America they knew, I say: Good for him!” Bond said.

For much of the 1980s, America’s president was “an amiable ideologue whose sole intent was removing government from every aspect of our lives. He brought the power of financial and ideological profiteers who descended on the nation’s capital like a crazed swarm of right-wing locusts, bent on destroying the rules and the laws that protect our people from poisoned air and water and from greed,” Bond charged.

One of Ronald Reagan’s acolytes — John Roberts — is now the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and is doing his best to gut anti-segregation laws, Bond said.

“From 1964 till now, all chief justices except John Roberts agree that race-conscious integration policies stood in harmony, not in tension, with Brown. In two cases from Louisville and Seattle, the Court held by a 5-4 vote that these systems could not voluntarily use race in assigning students to schools. The court ruled that conscious racial integration is the moral equivalent of conscious racial segregation,” Bond said.

“Indeed, for most of us, the notion that race cannot be considered in remedying racial discrimination is ludicrous. But now the ludicrous has become the law. The truth is there are no non-racial remedies for racial discrimination. In order to get beyond race, you have go to race. To suggest racial neutrality as a remedy for racial discrimination is sophistry of the highest order,” he said.

“I believe in an integrated America: integrated jobs, integrated homes and integrated schools. I believe it is a legal, moral and political imperative for America, a matter of elemental justice, simple right waged against historic wrong. It’s foolhardy to argue, under the guise of race neutrality or colorblindness, that we can now expand protections that made civil rights gains and the election of Barack Obama possible. No one would have made the same argument after World War II that because the United States won the war we can now dismantle the army, the navy and the marines,” Bond said.

“The Civil War that freed my grandfather was fought over whether blacks and whites shared a common humanity. Less than 10 years after it ended, the nation chose the side of the losers and agreed to continue black subjugation for another 100 years. So 246 years of slavery were followed by 100 years of state-sanctioned discrimination, reinforced by public and private terror, ending only in a protracted struggle in 1965, four years after Barack Obama was born. If you are 45 years old or older, it is only in your lifetime that racial equality before the law became a reality,” Bond said.

“We’re now asked to believe that 200 years of being somebody else’s property, followed by 100 years of oppression in the South and discrimination in the North can be wiped away by four and a half decades of half-hearted remediation and one presidential election. We’re asked to believe that we Americans are now a healed and whole people. The truth is racism is alive and well. That is a fact of life for every non-white American, including the president of the United States, eclipsing income, position, education — race trumps them all.”

Bond concluded, “The successful strategies of the modern movement for civil rights were litigation, organization, mobilization and coalition, all aimed to form a national constituency for civil rights. Sometimes it is the simplest of deeds — sitting at a lunch counter, going to a new school, applying for a marriage license, casting a vote — these can challenge the way we think and act. We have a long and honorable tradition of social justice in this country. It still sends forth the message that when we act together, we can overcome.”

—Peter Hart

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