How Americans view themselves, through a lens of social movements

January 14, 2017


After Donald Trump tweeted about how John Lewis was all talk and no action, and the people of Twitter lined up to praise Lewis (mostly) or Trump (some) in various ways, I started thinking about the different ways Americans view social movements, and the ways that shapes and is revealed by how we view ourselves. Specifically the Civil Rights Movement, but also others that work for black liberation. My thought is that how we view those movements in relation to the overall nature and trajectory of America is important and revealing for our current time.

Some Americans have always viewed these movements with open animosity from the right, and as though the movements and their demands are outside the acceptable limits of what makes America America. This is exemplified, of course, by the Klan, the Citizens Councils, the FBI’s oppression of activists, the George Wallaces and Bull Connors and Strom Thurmonds and Jeff Sessions of decades past. I believe it’s also now, when Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again. These Americans believe America is made worse by these movements; it’s at its best without their gains.

But this view is also exemplified by the underlying views of the Republican Party since the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This is well documented in statements from the Johnson and Nixon eras as the two parties figured out what their identities would be after that legislation, it gets more subtle as it goes through the Reagan years, and continues a little under the surface from there. I’d like to be clear: this is still the view of the majority of the Republican establishment in 2017. It is much less subtle in Trump and his various allies, but it is deep in the views of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well, among others. Maybe it is possible to be a Republican and not have this view, but to do so would require an honest look at this history and current perspective that I haven’t seen Republicans take. I’d like to see them do it, but I’m not sure it can be done while they remain Republicans, and that of course is very difficult.

I think there’s another view from the right as well, and that is the vaguely accommodating view. This is represented by the celebrations of Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, and by the constant but vague invoking and misquoting of King and others as the “correct” way to protest, in opposition of whatever other protests might be happening. This allows such people to, on the surface, act as though they’d be supportive of such movements without being supportive of their present day incarnations. It’s very powerful for them, and I think it helps keep them from recognizing the deeper view I mention above. It’s as dangerous as the view above, but in different ways.

Democrats also do this from the right, of course. The day bin Laden was killed, many Democrats talked (example: this tweet) as though his death was justice, even as though it was aligned with King’s “arc of the moral universe.” This ignores King’s own views on capital punishment (as expressed in this Ebony article, among other places).

This view, of at best incomplete and at worst dishonest, accommodation of liberation into the fabric of America, is easy and it makes Americans feel good. Most of us don’t know much about these movements, either historically or in the present, and having this view doesn’t require us to learn anything. We can vaguely call out to black liberation figures as if we support their goals just because we feel vaguely positive about those figures.

Democrats more often, maybe, talk as though America has already incorporated the things the Civil Rights Movement (for example) tried to teach us. We had to change a bit through the movement’s work, in this view, but we’ve already done it and moved on, and we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. This is Hillary Clinton countering Donald Trump by saying America has always been great. She clearly believes social movements, including black liberation movements, have brought positive changes to America. This seems to be because, in essence, America just has to be taught how to live up to its intrinsic greatness on a different level from time to time.

This makes us feel good as well. American culture has a basic optimism about its own nature and its own role in the world. It’s very easy for us to feel good about ourselves, and this lets us move past bad things in our past without being completely ignorant about them.

There’s still another way to view the relationship of these movements to America: movements have always pushed the country in directions it doesn’t want to go. They change it in spite of itself because justice is independent of the nature of a country and its citizens.

If this is true, and I believe it is, black liberation movements (and other liberation movements) are driving toward something unrelated to America’s better nature or imagined intrinsic greatness. It might be spiritual and theological (as it is for me, and has been for many people), or it might come from other motivations (as it has for many others). But justice is bigger than realizing America’s greatness. It’s bigger than “changing hearts and minds” because justice is worth demanding, even of unchanged hearts and minds. The pursuit is worth it because another world is possible.

This is the work of Langston Hughes, Bayard Rustin, King, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. It’s the work of Ida B Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Angela Davis. It’s the ongoing work of so many in the Movement for Black Lives today as it demands justice without accomodation. These people, and so many others that we as Americans respond to in the ways I try to introduce above, tell the truth about America. Not because they think it just needs to get a little better and realize its true nature, but because it needs, and has always needed, moral revolution of its true nature.

The majority of Americans have never supported social movements, especially these various black liberation movements. Most Americans didn’t support the goals and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement while it was happening, just like today most Americans don’t support the goals and tactics of the Movement for Black Lives, in all its parts. Most Americans (especially white Americans) are, as they have always been, either silently indifferent to injustice, or actively opposed to justice, for marginalized and oppressed people.

I don’t find this hopeless, to be clear, because hope for justice is not based in a vague idea that America is better than it is. Hope for justice is found with the specific people who invent that other world, and the things that inspire them. I believe it’s specifically found in the reign of Jesus, which exists alongside all the other reigns and powers, but constantly subverts them and calls others to do the same. In so doing, rather than tweaking those reigns and powers because they’re basically fine, it creates new worlds in the shell of the old ones.