As modern black American history goes, this week qualifies as a hot one. Just this morning there were already two things to rejoice about. Attorney General Eric Holder announced real steps to shorten the drug sentences that so many people — a disproportionate number of them black — suffer from. “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law-enforcement reason,” Holder told us.
That is an eternal complaint from black advocates nationwide. It isn’t for nothing that Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, on just this subject, won the NAACP Image Award in 2011. And here, our attorney general is behind just what the book decries, even calling for more money for drug-treatment programs.
Also Judge Shira Scheindlin decreed New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy is illegal. It has meant that in many New York City neighborhoods young black and Latino men have to expect to be halted on the street for no reason on a regular basis.
If I wanted to create generations of pissed-off young black men thinking that the only society they’ll ever know is an alien landscape, New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies of the past 10 years are precisely what I would come up with. Well, now a lot of those cops will have to carry around body cameras. Rookies will be paired with veterans, and the whole outfit will have an outside monitor, Peter Zimroth.
Black Power again.
Or at least so one would think. And yet in a couple of weeks, when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the general mood will be one of pessimism and head shaking. Oh, sure, we’ve made some progress. The mantra goes “We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.” But we’re supposed to think that the way to go is eternally longer than the way we’ve come. But if shortening prison sentences isn’t really important, and keeping inner-city black men from feeling like they live in a police state is just window dressing too, then what is it that we are actually waiting for?
The answer, for many, is something like another March on Washington. Something dramatic. The film clips, the power of the Rev. King’s delivery, the iconography, have taught us that for black people real change has to happen at high volume, with words like march, national and transformation.
But when King spoke, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 hadn’t happened yet, and there was little sign that they were about to. The prospect of an America without legal segregation and disenfranchisement was barely imaginable to some. In that moment, civil rights was indeed dramatic.
These days are different. America is much more diverse than it was. In 1963, television had just made black America’s plight visible in a way it hadn’t been before, but 50 years later, no one needs to be taught that too many black people are poor. And mainstream America is never going to truly, deeply “understand” racism on some sociology-class level — if that’s the “dream” anyone has, he or she needs to wake up.
Civil rights today is things like the ones that are happening right now. Besides shortening prison sentences and keeping unnecessary profiling from turning black men against productive living, the next step is freeing black America from the myth that the only way to have a decent existence and raise a family is to get a B.A.
The op-ed pages tell us this week after week. But did your cable technician, ultrasound technician, mechanic, building inspector or bail bondsman go to college? And do you get the feeling those jobs are in any danger of disappearing anytime soon? Community colleges and vocational schools are Black Power too.
And for anybody who’s thinking that what happened to Trayvon Martin means we have no reason for hope, here’s something to think about.
Winding down the war on drugs, pulling back profiling to the kind that makes sense, and teaching people who aren’t up for college how to thrive without it are all the kinds of things that will improve the fortunes of young black men just like Martin, including making encounters between people like him and cops — even self-appointed ones — rarer and rarer.
There comes a time when we can say “We’ve come a long way” — and leave it there. It’s a kind of, yes, Black Power to admit it’s O.K.