Education Should Deliver Us from Racism and Trumpism

tags: racism, Trump

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, Contributing Editor of HNN, and author of “An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces” (Anthem Press, 2008). For a list of his recent books and online publications, click here.

... In discussing U. S. racism over the past half century, especially with opponents of Affirmative Action (initiated in 1965) I have often heard the following words, “Slavery has been over for more than a century.” And, “I didn’t enslave black people. I can’t be held responsible for what white people did more than a century ago.” I have also often heard variations of the following statements used in the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) to sample racial attitudes: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors,” and “It’s really a matter of trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder that would be as well off as whites.”

True enough that slavery has been over for a long time. But its evil effects and racism continue to live on. In our own lifetimes, my wife, Nancy, and I, both children of white, blue-collar fathers, have seen plenty of it. Nancy grew up in Marion, Indiana, where in 1930, a mere nine years before her birth, two young black men were lynched surrounded by white onlookers. But she never heard about the incident until she was an adult. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, the swimming pool at Coney Island did not permit blacks until 1961, the year after I graduated from the city’s Xavier University.

In the early 1960s, when we were living in northern Virginia, interracial marriage was still prohibited there (as Loving depicted), and I can remember picketing a northern Virginia movie theater that still discriminated against blacks. In the late 1960s, we lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, where we witnessed plenty of racism.

Sure, some progress was made, especially in the heydays of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kennedy (JFK), Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), and decades later, Barack Obama. (See the new book Kennedy and King for a good overview of JFK’s complex relationship with King.) For example, in 1964, LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination of all kinds on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. The following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the federal government powers to see that blacks could register to vote without discrimination. Largely as result of this pressure, the percentage of black registered voters increased almost tenfold in Mississippi and more than threefold in Alabama between 1964 and 1969.

In 1965, LBJ initiated “affirmative action” by signing an executive order requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action” to ensure equality in hiring—in 1967, this order was amended in an effort to overcome gender as well as racial discrimination. In the decades that followed, additional affirmative action policies were developed and the whole effort was controversial and produced some backlash, but in a speech several months before his executive order Johnson outlined his rationale for it: “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity, not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

With the election and reelection of Obama as our first black president—it is symptomatic of our racial history that he is considered black even though his mother was white—it seemed that perhaps we had finally reached a crucial breakthrough in our attitudes toward race. But now, following the election of Donald Trump as president, it is clear that our old racial wounds are as troubling as ever. ...

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