That would seem to be the question separating left and right today as they look back on the March on Washington 50 years ago.
For some days now, writers in The Wall Street Journal have been trying to head off what they expected Barack Obama and other Democrats to say today. For instance, John McWhorter wrote this morning:
On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we will hear a good deal about how life in this country for black Americans has not changed as much as Martin Luther King Jr. might have wished….
It is easy to forget what an awesome moral landmark it was for an oppressed group to force the larger society to outlaw barriers to its success. But the victory of the 1964 and 1965 laws had an even greater impact than prohibiting segregation and racial discrimination in voter registration: It changed the culture. Personal racist sentiment rapidly became socially proscribed. The Norman Lear sitcoms of the early 1970s, in which bigoted whites were regularly held up to ridicule, would have been unthinkable just 10 years before….
(I)n recent years, the black middle class has flourished. Housing segregation for blacks is the lowest it has been since the 1920s. And a black president has been elected twice. Yet the fury persists, since what actually rankles these critics is the threat to what they feel is their very identity: underdogs with a bone to pick.
This is not where the March on Washington was pointing us. There is work left, but we are free at last. No, we aren’t living in a “post-racial” America, but that fantasy will never be realized. What we black Americans are free to do, in a permanently imperfect world, is shape our own destiny together.
As folks on the right predicted, the president today spoke of how far we have yet to go:
Taking the lectern, the nation’s first African American president paid homage to King’s legacy, saying that “because they kept marching, America changed.” But Obama warned that the struggle for equality is not yet complete, adding that “the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.”
“To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency,” Obama said. He cited as setbacks the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the high rates of African American incarceration…
There is justice on both sides of the argument.
A couple of days ago, in his “Best of the Web” feature at WSJ.com, James Taranto mocked Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson for writing, after she saw “The Butler:”
“I wish Chief Justice John Roberts and four of his Supreme Court colleagues would see [‘The Butler’], too. Maybe it will help them understand how wrong they got it when they recently decided that we are so far past Jim Crow that we can dispense with a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.”
As Taranto notes, that is a bogus statement on several levels, the greatest of which being that depictions of life on a cotton farm in the 1930s are hardly a guide to the racial landscape of the country today. Another is that doing away with pre-clearance requirement applying to parts of the country that today have greater minority voter participation than parts that are not subject to such requirements somehow dispenses with “a central provision” of the Voting Rights Act.
Every “central provision” in the act is still in force. Complaints of violations of the Act can still be brought. All that goes away is the assumption, codified into law, that people who live in certain geographic locations — this county, but not the one next to it — are guilty of discrimination until proven innocent.
It’s bogus when she says it, and it was bogus when the president cited it as evidence that we have not come far enough. On the contrary, the justices did away with the requirement precisely because we have come so far.
I particularly like Mr. McWhorter’s assertion that the victories of the civil rights movement “changed the culture.” About 20 years ago, historian Walter Edgar and I went out to lunch together, and while standing in line, we witnessed a fairly routine, friendly exchange between a white cashier and a black customer. After we left, Walter started talking about how we took such interactions for granted, when they would have been almost unimaginable at a time within living memory.
I thought back to that just the other day, when I witnessed a white man giving way, in a courtly manner, to a couple of black ladies in a public place. There was nothing unusual about it, and that’s the miracle. Within my lifetime, that likely would not have happened.
Now, on the other hand…
The president rightly cites such disturbing vital signs as the high rates of black incarceration, the high black unemployment rate, and other signs of a demographic group lagging behind, even as legal barriers have disappeared and everyday cultural habits have changed radically.
That is the bitter legacy of the century between the Emancipation Proclamation and Dr. King’s speech.
The huge, continuing argument in our politics will continue to be over what we should do about it.