50 years ago this week, on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made a landmark address to the nation on civil rights. The immediate trigger for the speech was the need for National Guard troops to escort two black students into the University of Alabama, implementing a federal court order to integrate that university. But President Kennedy was also addressing the nation’s protracted struggle with discrimination, inequality, injustice and outright assaults on the black population, the legacy of slavery and virulent racism. As Kennedy made clear in his speech, this was not simply a problem of the Old South, but a pervasive national scandal.
Half a century later, we might ask how much progress we’ve made as a nation. Sure, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted after President Kennedy’s assassination and with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s forceful leadership, provided federal legal protections to ensure integration of places of public accommodations like restaurants and stores, as well as banning employment discrimination. The law strengthened the ability of the federal government to implement the directions of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent cases on school integration. In 50 years, we’ve made considerable progress in creating a more enlightened society where integration is broadly accepted and civil rights are broadly protected.
And yet, and yet….. racism and prejudice remain rampant problems. Just this morning I was reading an article in the Washington Post about the success of the early childhood education program known as Educare. But as is often the case, what struck me about this story of a very worthy educational program for low income toddlers was the virulent hatred and disdain for human beings that came through in the “comments” section. Comments like these and worse (much worse) are the constant cacophony of internet discussions of most topics involving race, ethnicity and social class:
“What this really shows is how completely dis functional and incapable Ward7 adults are in being “parents.” perhaps the focus should be on straightening them out – treat the disease not the symptom.”
“How many illegal aliens’ anchor babies are enrolled in this program? How many ESL teachers are on the payroll”
“I wish the gubbmint would put more money into abstinence and sterilization programs. You get 1 free kid, then you get a FREE Norplant device installed. When you can prove to a judge that you can afford to raise your OWN kid, then it gets removed and you can breed again.”
Need more evidence? Check out this story of Twitter backlash to a 10 year-old Mexican-American boy singing the National Anthem at the NBA Finals game last night. Or the racist backlash to a Cheerios ad featuring a biracial couple and their child. The stories are endless, these examples suffice.
True, the old saying that “the government cannot legislate morality” is evident in each generation. But today’s most critical discussions — of immigration policy, educational opportunity, school reform, and even the latest scandal of widespread government surveillance of citizens — are all laced with extraordinarily hateful comments about people of color, people who don’t look like “us,” people who speak different languages or have different beliefs or who suffer extreme poverty.
The moral crisis of America in 2013 is not very different from the crisis we faced in 1963 or 1863, or even at the founding of this nation when such civil liberties icons as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could not find a way to make ending slavery part of the fabric of the nation from the start.
Yes, a sign of racial progress is the fact that a majority of citizens elected an African American president — twice. But that fact hardly made the United States a “post-racial” society, as some pundits claimed. If anything, President Barack Obama’s presidency has ignited deep pockets of hatred that fuels extremist desires to re-order society. No wonder that some polls say that substantial numbers of Americans don’t mind the latest revelations on government surveillance, since racial hatred is deeply entwined with the desire to impose severe controls on the social structure.
President Kennedy was right 50 years ago, and his words still ring true today:
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.
“The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?
“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
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Read my blog on the Huffington Post, Moral Bankruptcy and Student Loans
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