Fifty years after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, no one can argue that America has not seen big advances in race relations, but no one can argue that we have reached the promised land.
Gone is the overt racism and segregation of the Jim Crow era, and the country has twice elected an African-American President with a cabinet populated by those of other races. Yet people of color today face a very different, and in some ways, more complex form of “polite racism” that still works deep in the minds of people who would never think of themselves as racist and would never dare say the “N” word. And a more subtle form of systemic racism still surfaces throughout society and proves hard to root out.
It’s time to Reinvent the Civil Rights Movement to deal with this new form of 21st-century challenge. This roundtable brought together a wonderful mix of the next generation of civil rights activists who talked about how to take advantage of powerful digital tools that would have dazzled those in MLK’s time. They strategized about how to bring together a coalition of different racial groups that, because of decades of immigration, are going from minorities towards majorities. And they talked about alliances with the young generation of whites who don’t see race the way older generations still do.
The general consensus of the roundtable made up of black and white and other races, men and women, was that the controversy surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin was providing a catalytic moment to regenerate the civil rights movement and engage many more Americans in this 21st-century version of the struggle. They displayed great energy and hope that makes a one believe that Martin Luther King’s dream of an America of full racial equality is actually within reach.
Garlin Gilchrist II, the national campaign director for Moveon.org, set the table for the discussion by outlining the assault on some of the major elements of advances in civil rights dating from the 1960s. For example, the US Supreme Court recently upheld challenges to the Voting Rights Act and called for Congress to update it, and they also have whittled away at affirmative action initiatives. So one way to see the challenge is fighting back against the backlash to old civil rights laws.
However, most of those on the roundtable moved to defining the next front of civil rights, and that is going up against the lingering form of racism that many white people don’t even recognize. Rinku Sen, Publisher of Colorlines.com, said racism is no longer explicit and overt, but unconscious and systemic. She said “racism has morphed” and the movement has to catch up to it.
Cheryl Contee, founder of Jack and Jill Politics blog, gave an example of how systemic racism manifests itself. She cited a recent report analyzing the race of founders of startup companies funded by Silicon Valley venture capital firms: 80 percent whites, 20 percent Asian, and no African Americans or Latinos. Something systemic is going on there given the actual demographics of the country.
Joseph Phelan, founder of wearenottrayvonmartin.com, talked about how as a white person he set up a group blog largely to get other white Americans to talk about race in the aftermath of the acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case. The blog exploded in popularity with other Americans who were committed to taking on the vestiges of what he called “polite racism.”
One of the most extraordinary differences between the earlier era of civil rights and today is the powerful internet-enabled tools at our disposal. This roundtable was a vivid example of that difference as we pulled together activists from around the country for a face-to-face conversation over group video streamed to an audience of hundreds if not thousands of people (Moveon made a special appeal to its members to tune into this roundtable and we held it in the evening for that reason.)
Ciara Taylor, political director for Dream Defenders, participated from the Florida State Capitol building that she and others were occupying for many days and nights in an effort to get the governor to repeal the Stand Your Ground gun law that figured into the shooting of Trayvon Martin. She even walked us through the building and showed us Jesse Jackson speaking to the group.
Christina Samala, director of 18 Million Rising, a group representing Asian Americans, said these new video technologies help connect people in deeper ways and make for more empathy between those of different races.
Jotaka Eaddy, the NAACP’s senior director for Voting Rights, reminded everyone that the tools alone won’t win the struggle. They have to be used to bring people out to the street and “put boots on the ground” like in the civil rights era of old.
From my perspective and the perspective of the Reinventors series, one of the striking things about the conversation about how to Reinvent the Civil Rights Movement was how similar it was to the conversations about reinvention in many different fields. Here was yet another field disrupted by new technologies, big demographic shifts, and the globalization of everything.
These major forces were forcing a fundamental rethinking of the old ways, and an exploration of the new opportunities in a field trying to root out racism. It was very satisfying to watch – so I encourage you to watch it.
Peter Leyden Full Post →
What would Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders of that era do right now? Just about 50 years after the March on Washington, it’s worth thinking about what that generation would make of the situation in America today. Join Reinventors Network and MoveOn.org for this conversation that aims to examine that question & much more.
On the positive side, America has made big advances, including notable recent successes. The election and reelection of President Barack Obama was only a vague dream in 1960s America. And just weeks ago an historic bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill passed the Senate.
On the negative side, many feel progress is far from complete. That immigration bill sits stalled in the House, where it may not pass at all. The Supreme Court two months ago gutted the Voting Rights Act, and a little more than two weeks ago, George Zimmerman was acquitted in criminal court for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
At the same time, MLK and that first generation of leaders would be heartened by the demographic trends showing the growing numbers of people of color and a vibrant youth movement. And they would be amazed at the powerful new organizing tools based on digital technologies and the internet.
So what should civil rights leaders of today do to take advantage of this critical moment in order to Reinvent the Civil Rights Movement? This Reinventors Roundtable, moderated by MoveOn’s Garlin Gilchrist II,anchored by Jotaka Eaddy, Senior Director for Voting Rights for the NAACP and Rinku Sen, Publisher of Colorlines.com, will take on that huge challenge.
The verdict in the Zimmerman trial has launched an important conversation about racial bias, including reflecting on white privilege, and what it means to engage in full citizenship in America. In his recent speech after the verdict, Obama called on the country to use this opportunity to discuss race in our homes, community centers, synagogues, churches, mosques.
America arguably faces a catalytic moment where the actions we take now could lead to real change – where we can take this moment and turn it into a long-lasting movement for racial and social justice.
How do we take the new tools, organize the growing numbers of supporters, and build upon the lessons of that first Civil Rights era to make rapid progress on both the cultural and legislative fronts? And what are some concrete actions that anyone concerned with this important challenge can take right now? Watch this roundtable and find out. Full Post →