Fifty Years Later: Anniversary of the March on Washington

A number of people, including myself, found the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, which took place a few years ago while Obama still held the con, discouraging as well as a cause for celebration. It is worth trying to recapture that moment for why it was the anniversary of only a partial victory, just as gun control legislation, even if it came about, would be only a very partial victory against the cultural preoccupation of Americans with guns and gun culture, something that has little place in the modern urban world but only in the minds of those who idealize a Wild West which, contrary to fact, does not have gun totters deposit their weapons at the saloon door or at the Sheriff’s office.

Even President Obama, in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on the day the March on Washington was commemorated, had to include the statement that we should appreciate how much progress has been made in the fifty years just past. That remark was made as a caveat rather than a celebration because so many of the same old fights are being fought all over again. The Justice Department has to weigh in on attempts to suppress the Black vote. Savants arguing that stop and frisk is racial profiling are posing the same intellectual dilemma that was the concern fifty years ago when a firm distinction was made between prejudice, which was a feeling, and discrimination, which was the invocation of a non-relevant category to treat people differently. Back then, it had to do with whether merchants had to let unruly black customers into their stores, and now it is whether police have the right to stop black youth who are sauntering or otherwise seem to be up to no good. Is a cultural prejudice the source of discrimination or is it that there is good reason to investigate a given youth because of the presentation he gives off?

Time is a-wasting. There are other issues the nation has to get moving on, such as how to supply jobs not just to people of color but anyone who doesn’t have an Ivy League degree. Why do we have to re-litigate the past? The reason for doing so is that the history of the Afro-American community is that it has suffered a long series of setbacks as well as significant successes during its long struggle to settle the original American sin of having one half of it floundering in an economy based on slavery while, in the North, the original states were merely living through a period of slavery that never took deep root and that was drawing to a close. Understanding the persistence of what was once called “the Negro problem” requires placing the history of African Americans amidst the sagas of all the ethnic groups that have come to America. So listen up.

Every ethnic group in America is a saga of how sets of families, not including the original English and Scottish (and Dutch) settlers, were guest workers in America who were able to alter their wealth, social prestige, and the positions they hold in organizations in politics or business or culture, over the course of generations, sometimes against considerable opposition by those who had already been here for a few or more generations. That is the story of American upward mobility: different groups arrive in this country and each wave of immigrants and not just some individuals from that group, are able to rise up so as to considerably change the distribution of its members across the class system. Groups arrive poor and become ever more working class and then ever more middle class, some of their members rising to the very highest echelons of society.

Moreover, each group has its moment in the sun. It becomes a focus of American cultural interest as it moves from being exotic to being established economically and socially while contributing its unique assets to the American cultural mix. Then the successful group is supplanted as a center of cultural interest by some subsequent wave of immigrants. There were African American opera singers before the present crop of Slavic divas and before that came the Jewish singers and before that the Italians. Italians, then African Americans, and then Hispanics, became the dominant ethnic group in baseball. The Irish graduated from city jobs to leadership positions in corporations and moved from local party politics to national party politics. Jews went into commerce before a later generation went on to college and took up important posts in medicine, academia, and the law.

A window of opportunity is the generation within the family immigration saga when people are most likely to be upwardly mobile. It is the pivotal moment when a group is able to make the transition because it still considers itself an immigrant group. This moment occurs when the group is transformed from a caste to a social order, which provides it with the motivation and opportunity to take advantage of and forge new class relationships because the group does not have a prior way of life to which it holds allegiance, and is desperate enough to take advantage of any opportunity to become a social order. Such windows of opportunity provide the impetus for Scots in England in the l8th century, Indians in South Africa in the 19th century, Jews in Western Europe in the l9th century, Englishmen in the United States in the 19th century, and so on. The Protestant Ethic can be seen as a functional alternative for this window of opportunity because it provided peasants made newly respectable by their church with the ambivalence that leads them to take advantage of opportunities, since sects are kinds of castes.

If the window of opportunity is extended for more than one generation, the dream may seem insufficiently achieved. This is the case with white ethnics. If the window of opportunity is missed, or extended over four or more generations, the group will see itself as having been passed over, but more important will see itself as having a way of life, and so feel entitled to the social goods that go along with that, and adjust to the class relationships that obtain when their group remains in place as either just or unjust.

If those parameters of American ethnic dynamics are applied to African Americans, then there is cause for both celebration and also for dismay. African Americans have moved from being a caste group to being an ethnic group in the course of the past sixty or so years. Think of African Americans as having “begun” their movement into the American way of life as a result of the internal immigration of large numbers of African Americans from the South to the North after the Second World War.

There had been a previous, though smaller, movement after the First World War. African Americans could at that time get work in very few industries and so their upward mobility depended upon civil service jobs in northern cities or on low level jobs in major industries. Franklin Frazier points out that someone who shined shoes outside a GM office said he was with the auto industry. But such positions did allow people to create a middle class lifestyle, or what would in the white community be considered a lower middle class lifestyle, and so put their families on the road to upward mobility.

If the post World War II northward migration is the starting point, then the progress of African Americans since that time has been spectacular. Barriers against educational discrimination and discrimination in commercial settings were broken, as well as barriers against social intermingling and miscegenation. As Max Weber would put it, if you eat and sleep with people, then you are no longer in a separate social caste. In two generations, African Americans had also established themselves in the professions as well as throughout the entertainment industry, and as a cultural focus within the popular imagination that would in the next or present generation become replaced by Hispanics and Asians as the peoples who were going through the movement from accommodation to integration to assimilation. And in that third generation, an African American was elected President of the United States. How is that for three generations!

But that entire success story is clouded by the persistence of the African American underclass. Sure, there are other ethnic under classes, and one could say that there are parts of Appalachia and the South which have pockets of white poverty that more resemble pre-industrial peasant communities than they do the sequestered lives of the African American people who live in the shadows of the prosperity of Northern cities. But they are less visible and seem less of a drag on the perception of a group that is supposed to have made it than does the African American underclass, where gang violence and drive by shootings and seemingly intractable problems of unemployment and low educational attainment persist despite the success of the by now very broad African American middle class. Those people still live in a culture where, as William Julius Wilson has demonstrated, they still suffer from the mutually reinforcing effects of the triple whammy of residential, cultural and economic segregation. Kids never leave the South Side; they try to navigate their way around the housing projects; and the majority of their peers are unemployed. Teenage girls wind up pregnant and teenage boys wind up dead. There aren’t enough available men for women to marry and so the single parent family gets perpetuated across the generations.

The true story of African Americans in America is therefore not just of a new wave of ethnic arrivals whose movement up is more or less delayed depending on whether they came from urban backgrounds, such as the Jews from Eastern Europe and the Chinese from Taiwan, in which case they “made it” into the middle class in one or two generations or, if they came from rural backgrounds, as did the Irish and Italians, and so took twice as long to accomplish similar degrees of mobility. It is rather a story of a people who have missed a number of windows of opportunity because the political structure was unwilling to offer the same kind of assistance, in the way of jobs and rules against discrimination and the provision of social services, that it did for white groups that immigrated to these shores. That remains the unfinished business of America and why a healthy sense of discouragement is appropriate at this time of celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great speech.

The paradox of black history is that it has been a set of new beginnings necessitated by past historic failures of the African American community to escape its caste. This process reaches back to the Seventeenth Century when the rights or lack of rights of slaves were distinguished from the limited rights of white indentured servants who had contracted for a specific period of time.

In the 1820's, slavery could have been abolished but for the dependence of the then new South on cotton plantation expansion to the West. It was then still a newly expanding system. Don’t think of Margaret Mitchell’s Tara but of barely reachable newly carved out cotton fields on the Alabama frontier. These communities had not yet been very far developed and yet there was no attempt to adjust the slave system to the context of a modern democratic state. Rather, ideologists of slavery simply regarded the institution as being what they supposed that it had been in ancient Greece: a way to support an elite that could devote itself to democracy. Nor was there any attempt to improve the conditions of the slaves by regulating the rights and responsibilities of owners. That system had already begun to sprout its fruit, not merely in the form of very occasional slave rebellions, but more important, a state of rural decrepitude, if the accounts of Olmstead some thirty years later were accurate, more reminiscent of the tenant farmers in pre-famine Ireland than of the prosperous farms at which the Confederate army marveled when it briefly marched through Pennsylvania.

Moreover, The Confederate Constitution makes no mention of slavery other than that it is protected. There is no effort, as there was in the United States Constitution, to see the Confederacy as weaning itself from slavery over the course of generations or even to turn slavery into a caste system where the rights and responsibilities of each caste would be recognized. Slaves were property rather than a lesser form of human being.

The economic dependence of ex-slaves could have been abolished during Reconstruction even if a segregated society could have been maintained for a few generations. But there were no economic and political institutions that would cede to them much less give them control over their promised forty acres and a mule. To the contrary, the system of Jim Crow that was established after the failure of Reconstruction, which was something of a foregone conclusion given that Confederate politicians were allowed to resume control of the Southern states now readmitted to the union and who quickly reestablished control over the United States Congress so that no president that came after Grant and before Truman made any sustained political plea for the rights of Negroes (Theodore Roosevelt chastised for merely dining with Booker T. Washington)—that Jim Crow system, it has been argued by Eugene Genovese and other historians, arguably worse than slavery in that the exploitation of sharecroppers by merchants and landholders was as bad as naked capitalism could make it and was as the same kind that made the Irish tenant farmers of the first half of the nineteenth victims of the inevitable eventual failure of the potato crop.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's did not abolish unequal opportunities for African Americans through proving avenues of economic mobility even for the poorest members of the group, as had been the case with previous white immigrant groups. There was a decline in the manufacturing jobs that had provided a working class style of life for Slavs and other Eastern European ethnics in previous generations; residential re-segregation resulted from a movement of white ethnics to the suburbs as part of their own integration into American society; and there was an inability on the part of African Americans and their supporters to consolidate an economic or political agenda after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Waves of white immigration had previously been met with government jobs. The Irish who immigrated in the 1840’s got jobs in the newly created urban police and fire departments. The Italians of the next wave of immigration, during the 1880’s through the 1920’s, those who came in through Ellis Island and its equivalents, got jobs in the sanitation department and in construction, which can be considered a government provided job because it depends on permits and zoning rulings provided by cities, as well as on direct funding of public works by government. Jews during their first generation in America went into small business but their children took advantage of college level public education to make their way into the professions of law and medicine and the semi-professions of teaching and accounting. The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, during the Thirties, which was certainly a government program, provided jobs mainly for white ethnics and white rural people.

There was no similar jobs program when the African Americans moved north. Rather, there was a fight over the size of welfare benefits, which are given in overwhelming proportions to mothers to raise their children. African American men were left out in the cold, and so an underclass and a culture of poverty that originated in the South was replicated in the North. The failure to provide jobs, naturally enough, was interpreted as a failure of the people who needed the jobs to get what wasn’t available. Moreover, major efforts at affirmative action in education were to the advantage of young African American men and women who were already in the middle class or near to it, but were not of much use to students whose school experiences were a failure from the very beginning.

The structural problem for ethnic groups that do not gain social mobility at the same time that they gain social status is that they lose their turn in the sequence. They are superseded by more recently arriving waves of immigration which are engaged in their own windows of opportunity. They are therefore defeated not only by circumstances but by a traumatic sense of failure.

So here we are at it again. Voter suppression laws are put into place without any evidence of voter fraud or the sense that making things difficult for Black voters is something to be weighed in the balance. These laws don’t even have provisions to assure that it will become easier to get the required credentials. They do not require outreach efforts by the motor vehicles bureaus or other agencies, as might be the case if offices were opened overtime so people, let us say, could get vaccinations. Narrowing the times to vote is also evidence of discrimination because there is no claim that those are occasions for fraud. Its purpose can be inferred to be to make it more difficult for Blacks who vote on Sunday voting hours to do so. Most of the proponents of voter suppression know enough to say there is no intent to discriminate, but the absence of any other purpose or alternative procedure for getting credential belies that.

We have been through this before. Separate schools were defended as part of the long term project of improving the condition of the Negro race.  Now taking the safety net away from people is seen as a way to make them independent, as if the circus aerialist has to be punished for the failure of his skills should he make a mistake and fall without a net to save him. There is no logic in what the opponents of voting and social programs say. It is hard not to conclude that their real impetus is a persistent racism that just does not go away, and why that is the case is a subject worthy of examination. We could review all the theories offered in the Forties and Fifties and Sixties for why racism was so strong an emotion, but it is disheartening enough just to contemplate having to go through those arguments one more time.