A meditation on change
Under a blog post I wrote the other day was a short comment. Okay, I know I’m not supposed to read the comments, but this one struck me because of how often I hear it. It simply said “nothing’s changed.” Sometimes I hear that from people who are hurt by a history I’ve outlined. This history resonates with something that they have seen recently or something that has happened to them. They are thinking about the ongoing struggle against inequality that still stifles opportunities for so many African Americans.
Sometimes “nothing’s changed” is a snarky remark, sarcasm from a person that is uncomfortable with something they’ve just learned about the American past. They use the notion of “nothing’s changed” as a way to push back, reminding me through their comment that “hey, the president is black” or whatever proof they’d like to offer as evidence that the whole race thing is over. Most times they are upset.
No matter the intent, I think it is so important to think through this question about change. We have a duty to recognize what is materially different about the lives of African Americans today, and the myriad ways the movement gave birth to new rights and fresh opportunities for people of all walks of life. And we have a duty to recognize the ongoing inequalities that still make life harder, that prevent African Americans from fully realizing the opportunities that are available.
Let me explain this more simply. When a student asks me the change question, I always begin with the place where I am standing. I remind them that I teach at a university where my mother could not have legally attended as a student their age. In fact, every institution of higher learning I’ve attended barred African Americans in the 1950s when my mom was going to Howard. I remind them that when my mother attended Howard University in Washington D.C., our nation’s capital was segregated. My mom recalled waiting at the train station for a “Negro cab” to come by in order to take her to campus, while white cabs ignored her and her bags on the curb.
I tell these stories because it helps my students remember that segregation didn’t happen in some far off time. It happened in our recent past. This helps them see that so much has changed so quickly, and yet that past still lives with us. All this history reminds them that the world is fundamentally different. What is legally possible has changed so dramatically that we can marvel about the ongoing impact of the efforts of people like Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, Bob Moses, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Diane Nash, Martin Luther King, Jr. It is impossible to deny the many ways that the movement had an impact on circumstances of our daily lives. I think about that change every time I vote in a state that legally disfranchised black voters. I don’t have to pass a literacy test, pay a poll tax, or risk my life to cast my vote. Change indeed.
However, I also remember that there are those who might want to roll back those changes. The array of new voter ID laws around the country reminds us of how easy it is to erect barriers that would disfranchise the poor and the elderly. And the recently defeated efforts to roll back substantive integration of public schools in Wake County, NC remind us that the battles many believe are so far in the past, have a way of re-emerging in new forms.
Every time I hear a politician race-bait, be it with discussions about the shortcomings of “blah” people, food stamps, dependency, or the sudden urgent need to put young black children to work, I sometimes think they want Americans to believe that nothing has changed. They want us to believe that we have no place at the table, that we shouldn’t be heard, that we shouldn’t take pride in the change struggle has given a new generation.
Its messy, incomplete, and requires ongoing effort and imagination, but things have changed.