Our country has come a remarkable way in my lifetime.
I was born in a racially segregated country with laws impairing the black’s right to vote. There were neighborhoods in Seattle with covenants that made it unlawful for blacks to live there. When I was in college, black people could not buy property in my parent’s neighborhood. For that matter they would not even sell to Jews. In the 1960’s there were people living who had been slaves and several who had parents who had been slaves. Society was racially segregated and racism was rather obvious.
I’ve see the Supreme Court declare racial segregation to be unconstitutional. The civil rights movement was an enormous effort by many, many people and the experience became deeply imbedded in the participants’ consciousness. There was a sense of camaraderie among the participants in the movement not unlike the what happens among troops in a war. There was real grief over the assassinations of civil rights leaders and people still get deeply moved hearing Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech. It was truly a profound experience full of struggle and violence and doubt and faith.
The country has made mighty efforts to overcome the ghetto-ization of the descendants of the slaves. Every step was marked with controversy, extremely high emotions, and great uncertainty about the benefits of the undertaking. The resistance to the movement included outspoken racists, but far from only those people.
Many, many people were not remotely racists but worried about the preservation of the fabric of society, going too far and too fast. Many of the “civil rights” efforts seemed artificial and meaningless. Many felt that the efforts were going way too far and penalizing non-blacks by usurping opportunities precious to struggling whites. Emotions always ran high with everyone on all sides seeing himself or herself fighting against injustice on the other side and saw the risk of the country’s doom hovering above everything.
It seemed to me that everyone in the last few decades has been fighting for opportunity as that person perceived it. Beneath all the squabbling was a foundational belief that this is the land of opportunity.
Many on the left despaired that with the demise of affirmative action, we were shirking our moral responsibility. Many felt that with the reduction in social services assured the further decline of people in the cycle of poverty. Many saw the Bush administration as having put us back toward the inequities of the 1960’s.
Out of this seething cauldron of accusations, distrust, blame, failed hope and sharp division steps a black president, calling for unity. For me he represents, not a triumph of the civil rights movement, but a triumph of the American experiment. People on the right who opposed the civil rights “social engineers,” who opposed formulaic affirmative action should feel vindicated. Out of the impossible tangle of competing ideas we have elected a black president, something no industrialized western country has done. Thirty-five years ago this was utterly inconceivable. Our foundation belief in opportunity has triumphed.