RACE RELATIONS TODAY
Sunday, February 23, 2014
LBJ’S “GREAT SOCIETY 50 YEARS ON
A LOOK AT THE STATE OF
RACE RELATIONS TODAY
RACE RELATIONS TODAY
ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK
LBJ MEETING WITH MLK IN THE WHITE HOUSE IN 1964
(PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMUNICATIONS)
TAGS: PRESIDENT LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, LBJ, GREAT SOCIETY INITIATIVES,
CIVIL RIGHTS ACT, VOTERS RIGHTS ACT, MEDICAID, MEDICARE, RACE RELATIONS,
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, WAR ON POVERTY, VIET NAM, SOCIAL UNREST,
THE 1960’S, INEQUALITY, LEGACY OF SEGREGATION, RESURGENCE OF INSTITUTIONAL
RACISM, LAWS TO RESTRICT AFRICAN AMERICAN VOTERS
(Sunday February 23, 2014 NYC) Race in America remains as thorny and divisive an issue today as it has ever been. In some respects it appears that there has been a sometimes subtle, sometimes overt retrograde backslide. It is difficult to argue that we live in anything approaching a “post-racial America”, a garbage term in and of itself. Issues of race and inequality have become more pronounced paradoxically since the ascendance of the former freshman Senator from Illinois; Barack Obama has been twice elected as our country’s first African American President. Many naively believed that the presence of an African American in the White House would automatically douse the insidious burning embers of our most racist past. They could not have been more wrong. If anything in many parts of the United States we live behind a contrived façade of racial harmony; Democrats, Progressives, Liberals as well as earnest people of good conscience do believe that our country has turned the corner when it comes to race. Look, they say, we have elected an African American President. They are proud about this feat and, once President Obama took the Oath of Office for the first time in January 2009, they were content to walk away back into the comfortable confines of their own lives confidently self-righteous that they had done their part to mend America, to move it forward, and to relegate the racial divide and our untidy history of slavery, segregation, bias, bigotry and disparity to history.
But that has clearly not been the case. Actually the exact opposite has occurred. One need only to listen to or read in the news the political rhetoric in Washington, DC, State Houses and Legislatures across the country to see the depth of the resistance to moving towards a more equitably welcoming society when it comes to African Americans and Latinos. Perhaps we should have expected this to some degree; maybe we could have been more alert to the potential of what President Obama would represent to different people. Aside from the aesthetics of an African American First Family in the White House and the fact that children of color could see a President and his family that looks more like them, the Obama Presidency has torn open barely healed wounds and has inflicted some new ones, at least in the eyes of those who had never imagined a “Black” President in their lifetimes.
THE DREAM OF THE “GREAT SOCIETY”
This is the 50th anniversary of the body of law and legislation, policy and initiatives crafted by our 37th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ). An old time Democrat from Texas, Johnson found himself suddenly thrust into the Presidency from his post as Vice President after President John F. Kennedy (JFK) was assassinated in November 1963.
A master of the Senate LBJ inherited a Presidency that was on the cusp of one of the most tumultuous periods of time in American history. Fairly or not LBJ and all his accomplishments are often lost in the shadows cast by the myth of what JFK might have done had he lived and the war in Viet Nam. The nation was soon to be torn asunder by issues of race and rights, war and conscience that strained the mortar of virtually every institution of government and law in the land.
Anyone born after the late 1950’s likely has no personal memories of what was transpiring in the world. Those of us of a certain age might recall watching the news broadcasts and the grainy black and white images made possible by the old cathode ray tubes. We saw our fellow Americans who happened to be “Negro” being beaten, assaulted with powerful water hoses as the police and dogs fought with them. We saw brutal bloody clashes in places like Alabama, Mississippi and other locales in the Deep South. Just 51 years ago systemic segregation was the law in a large swathe of America. There were public facilities designated for “Whites” and “Coloreds” and in the most racist parts of the South that distinction was unimpeachable and often enforced lethally. There were places were lynching was still a means of “punishment” and a spectator sport often conducted in the town square in a carnival-like atmosphere of deep seated hatred that may be hard for some to imagine today. Yes, these barbaric tactics were employed across Dixie into the 1960’s. This was the toxic state of affairs 100 years after the conclusion of the “War between the States”, as they say down South, known more commonly as our Civil War.
As a expanding organized Civil Rights movement took shape across the country and the horrors of Jim Crow’s South were broadcast to the wider nation and the world, it became increasing obvious that without federal protections afforded by new federal legislation, the notion of “Civil Rights” would remain an unachievable goal. African Americans did not even have the right to vote; they were excluded from participation in the most basic aspects of life in society. Into the increasingly violent and widening breech LBJ bravely waded in and convinced of the responsibility to end systemic endemic segregation, managed after mighty efforts to pass the Civil Rights Bill, The Voter’s Rights Act as the first of what would become a hefty portfolio of law designed to alter the social fabric and some of the other vexing realities of poverty and inequality for people of every race.
While LBJ exerted a Herculean effort to pass and enact his Great Society programs he found himself having to spend more and more time addressing our growing involvement in Viet Nam. Though JFK had initially sent American “advisors” and a limited number of troops to Viet Nam, it would become LBJ’s war and come to dominate the national debate and anti-war movement for the ensuing five years of his Presidency.
THE NOT SO GREAT SOCIETY
The body of legislation and initiatives LBJ had designated as the “Great Society” came to be seen by many as a failed experiment at “social engineering”. Well intended but wildly ill-conceived, certain aspects of “Urban Renewal”, for example, only exacerbated the very same conditions LBJ had hoped to correct. Housing “projects”, those congested complexes of concrete and brick that to those of us living in New York City became known simply as “The Projects”, created conditions that only served to perpetuate some of the social pathologies they had been designed to address. There were no commercial zones in the Projects which meant that the residents living there had to walk long distances to purchase groceries and goods; their children had to walk further to bus and subway stops and the stark landscape of these “vertical” neighborhoods bred an environment where the residents felt ostracized in a way; they were certainly apart from and separate from the surrounding neighborhoods in very high density housing.
Significant components of LBJ’s Great Society were measures directed to alleviate the underlying causations of economic disparity and all that comes with it. Johnson boldly declared his “War on Poverty” and it turned out to be as big a quagmire as was the ever expanding mess in Viet Nam. “Public Assistance” programs backfired horribly and resulted in a pattern of publically subsidized poverty until President Bill Clinton made the efforts to “reform welfare as we know it”.
Several other components of the Great Society remain intact today and have proven to be effective and essential for many Americans over the last 50 years. Medicare and Medicaid have provided health care insurance for older Americans as well as the indigent. They rank among the greatest successes of LBJ’s tenure. Some of his other signature economic/employment measures have also stood the test of time and looking back over these past 50 years; they stand out for their lasting efficacy and positive impact.
THE GREAT BACKSLIDE
Putting partisan politics aside and looking away from the perpetual gridlock and ineptitude of Congress, the topic of race in America seemingly still grows like amoral weeds in the fields and ditches, sprouts through cracks in sidewalks and avenues of our great country. All our Congress is good for is fomenting and tapping into the basest sentiments of their constituents. The widespread practice of gerrymandering of Congressional districts virtually assures that seats that are currently held by one Party or the other will most assuredly remain in their current and respective side of the aisle. The unrestrained millions of private single-minded special interest dollars contributed on both sides of the Party divide from unknown sources cement the fact that extreme partisanship will continue to reign supreme over the political and social horizon for as far as the eye can see.
Caught in this ideological vise pitting Left versus Right is the mass of our populace White, African American, Latino and all of the other ethnicities that are the woven tapestry of our society today are just trying to keep their heads above the roiling waters of debt, un - and sub-standard employment. The last vestiges of those facets of LBJ’s Great Society that proved to be more social engineering than Democratic governance have been dismantled and abandoned; crudely tossed into the landfill of antiquated solutions aimed at endemic ailments not remedially solved by the federal government.
Today economics is almost as great a divide as race once was. While racial issues are being more aggressively used by the Right wing, ultra-Conservative, Tea Partyers, and virulent anti-Obama factions the growing disparity in income, the chasm between the “haves” and “have nots”, is being exploited by the Right with not very subtle undertones to stoke the fires of residual racism. Claiming the income gap represents an innate inability of African Americans to work and lift themselves out of poverty denies the real reasons that African Americans are more likely to live in poverty cloistered in seedy neighborhoods with high crime rates, few convenient amenities like grocery stores, pharmacies and businesses that service their communities.
The Republican Party which controls the Governorship and State Legislatures in 37 states have introduced more bills to limit, restrict or otherwise make it more difficult for African Americans to vote. Such initiatives are yet another abhorrent form of social engineering just as egregious as the gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Racism is alive and well; actually flourishing in many states across the land.
For their part, much of the onus for their current and seemingly perpetual plight is rightfully placed on the African American community themselves. In a perverse twist the ascendance of some African Americans has created a greater sense of apartness from those still struggling to improve their lot. We have an African American President and African Americans working in professions of every type from physicians and lawyers to engineers, academics, upper management level position across the entire spectrum of our economic and industrial base. That cannot be denied. But what had been once considered a corollary effect of this upward mobility of some to help more gain entry into what was called a “Black middle class” has simply not happened or, in places where it has it is not as robust and widespread as had been hoped.
In many ways the hope and promise of LBJ’s Great Society have boomeranged; they allowed for some forward impetus towards racial equality yet, just as a rubber band can be stretched it will stretch only so far before returning to its original dimensions or breaking. Taking stock of our society today there is evidence that the racial rubber band has been drawn several degrees back closer to its original 1964 dimensions. Racism today is more insidious, more disguised and instead of the overt Jim Crow laws Statehouses utilize the legislative process as the modern day tools of that racism. A majority of those states have introduced Bills that are just modern day versions of the old “Poll Taxes” crafted to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote.
If there are any people who are more aware of the power of words than writers they are politicians. They have big staffs of aides and advisors and speechwriters. They know the power of their words and now employee an array of euphemisms and metaphors, some “dog whistle” terms known to incite their audience and invoke very specific emotions and attitudes. Much of the rhetoric employed by the Right is incendiary and many of the most out front racist politicians use a slimy cast of surrogates to appeal to their constituents. From the “Birthers” who vociferously proclaim President Obama is not a “legitimate” President, that he was born in Kenya, is a communist/socialist, anti-American charlatan destined to march the United States down some twisted gravel road towards alliance in a “New World Order”, to those convinced our President is an “apologist” for America more inclined to side with other nations than represent “true” American interests, the Obama Presidency has been the catalyst igniting long simmering anti-government and racist sentiment. Some of it is embarrassing and the rest of the world looks askance at what passes for our “politics” today.
Last week at a political rally for the Republican candidate for Governor of the State of Texas, the aging one time rock and roller, gun enthusiast and outspoken opponent of everything democratic or Obama, Ted Nugent, referred to our President as a “sub-human mongrel”. When did such terminology become acceptable in political discourse? When did questioning the very nature of a twice elected President stop raising eyebrows before more reasonable politicians would step in and repudiate hate speech? It had become vogue to use vulgar language when President Bill Clinton invited sexually scandalous behavior into the Oval Office but has grown exponentially since Barack Obama first announced his candidacy for the Office of the President.
SADLY, FULL CIRCLE
And so it goes; the circle will be unbroken. Our brief tour of race relations in America 50 years after the Great Society that LBJ envisioned and sacrificed all his political capital for remains an elusive reality. Despite the great strides forward, new realities continually jab us back into a corner. The Hydra headed reptile of racism, ignorance, intolerance and even hatred is a patient presence in our society. It exists in dormancy for lengths of time only to come out of its cave to resurface in our political-social-cultural landscape as poisonous as ever.
There are no real victims here because both sides of the political divide, each side in any debate regarding race in America has a proliferation of loud mouth carnival barkers spewing unconstructive, divisive arguments that offer nothing of substance to the matters at hand. Thanks to the 24/7 “infotainment” cycle, there are enough bully pulpits for all to be heard from. For every point there is a counterpoint; for every Right-winger there is a Left-winger willing to engage in the battle no matter how useless and senseless it may be. Arguments need not have merits in today’s discourse; all that seems to matter is if you can talk over your opponent, speak with sufficient volume and feigned fury to satisfy like-minded citizens. When all is said and done one is left to wonder if anything worthy, any objectively valid point was expressed and the conclusion is usually no.
We as a country and as a people have a long way to go in many aspects as a society and culture. Perhaps, the first steps could be towards a more civil style of debate and discussion, an acknowledgment that “all are created equally” and, as such, ought to be treated similarly.
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