By JOE AUCIELLO
Even a brief look at the racial landscape in America today would convince a reasonable person that, in essential ways through the years, too little has changed. Differences in wealth, income, education, employment, incarceration, etc.—differences that are growing to the disadvantage of Blacks—are still based on race. The election of a Black man as president and the election of other minorities to office have brought no overall improvement in the daily life of Black America.
In fact, Jim Crow, if he ever went away, has returned. Police departments throughout the country certainly think so, and the Supreme Court has backed them. So, Black males, especially, continue to be profiled, stopped and frisked, harassed, and shot with distressing regularity. The growth of a Black middle class has not fundamentally altered this reality. Just ask Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. the next time he is arrested when he misplaces his house key.
Yet, within the framework of this racially charged country, significant if unexpected change is emerging. In Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Cleveland, and other cities where Black men have been shot or killed, people of many races and ethnic groupings—including whites, Asians, and Latinos—and especially the young, participate in the demonstrations, marches, die-ins, and civil disobedience arrests.
Such an assertion is, admittedly, not readily quantifiable. After all, no one is required to show proof of age in order to join a demonstration, and marchers do not line up by year of birth. Yet, the evidence is there for anyone to see. Participate in local protests. Watch national television coverage; look at YouTube footage, examine social media, and the conclusion is obvious and undeniable. Political actions, from demonstrations to die-ins, are significantly young and multi-racial.
More and more, a new generation of youth is making its first political act in the name of racial justice. They expect and demand that a nation that proclaims “Liberty and Justice for All” must actually live up to these ideals. Young protesters today are not necessarily the veterans of the Occupy movement. Many of the youth who are taking to the streets now were too young to figure in that wave of actions. Instead, they are moved by the injustice that plays out in front of their eyes.
While most have not placed an “equal sign” between racism and capitalism—at least, not yet—they do insist that the political and legal system must change for the better. They bring to these protests no faith that government will reform itself and no faith in the Democratic Party. It appears more and more that young whites who are compelled to action feel their strongest identification less with the social system that provides them an uncertain future and more with the Black victims of that system. This represents a profound shift and growth in social consciousness.
Polls taken in response to Ferguson show an unsurprising racial divide in America. Whites overall are more likely to deny the existence of racism, support the police, etc. Yet, Pew Research data from August 2014 also shows young whites at odds with their parents’ generation regarding issues of race, bias, police misconduct, and other issues.
A positive stand against racism is not an isolated occurrence but part of an overall pattern of progressive ideas. This is the generation that believes gays deserve the right to marry, that wants abortion not only legal but also available, that supports the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from overseas, that would extend health care to being a universal right, and favors a healthy environment for people more than healthy profits for corporations.
It has not always been this way. For instance, following the police assault on Rodney King in 1991, author and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote a column in the Guardian newspaper entitled: “Police brutality: Where are the white leftists?” (May 1, 1991, p. 18). He contrasted two demonstrations in Los Angeles, held a few months apart, in which he had participated. The first was a demonstration of 20,000 mostly white protesters against the Gulf War while the second was a demonstration of 6000 or 7000 mostly Black protesters against police violence. “My question: In less than three months, where did the white progressives disappear to?”
Hutchinson continued: “How is it that thousands of white activists can wage passionate campaigns against oppression and human rights abuses in Chile, El Salvador, South Africa, China, the Occupied Territories and the Philippines but not in the ghettos and barrios of their own cities? Why is it that white progressives are continually struck by political paralysis and unable to unite with African-Americans in anti-racist struggles on U.S. streets?”
This is a different generation than the one Hutchinson criticized. A strong impulse of solidarity leads young people to fight alongside minorities, the poor, and the perpetual victims of American “justice.” The same spirit of solidarity that defined the best of past labor and social movements—the conviction that “an injury to one is an injury to all”—is being renewed in today’s national protests.
Photo: Dec. 13 Day of Outrage, New York City. John Minchillo / AP