Another Reading of the Historical Record on Civil Rights

I wrote a blog post a week ago positing that civil rights era protests may not have been as effective as I'd previously thought. My basic claim was that confrontation seemed to kick up a storm, and it might have been possible to kick up less of a storm. I still think it probably would not have been possible, but the strength of my confidence was weakened.

There's an alternative reading, or at least an additional issue, that might be at play in the history of the civil rights movement: that the civil rights movement made serious strategic miscalculations in the specific changes it pushed for and accepted.

The story of racial justice since the civil rights movement is chronicled in a number of places, my favorite of which is Ta-Nehisi Coates' The Case for Reparations. Basically, while legally ordained segregation ended, a number of systems popped up that sustained nearly the same degree of racial segregation in the most intimate and important places: mass incarceration, residential segregation, and school-based segregation. All exist without explicit reference to race. The criminal justice system seeks to put people behind bars, and at every step of the way racial bias creeps in without notice. People choose where to live and send their children to school: white people prefer to live with white people, but nobody is explicitly banned. (In some cases, to be clear, things get more aggressive and explicit, but this is the general pattern.)

According to Pillar of Fire, at a number of points in the civil rights struggle, civil rights leaders considered and decided against a more aggressive push to integrate housing and schooling, particularly in Northern cities. Leaders likely saw this decision as a decision to work on those issues later. Had leaders anticipated the backlash that would result from the movement's confrontation, though, they might have decided otherwise: they might have seen that the opposition would take advantage of whatever issues were not addressed and made greater minimum demands in legislation.

It's impossible to know what exactly is the right course of action in a social movement, and difficult even to guess. The moral may be simply that when fighting for social changes, the specifics of the changes you ask for and accept are critical. Every stone left unturned can cost you for a very, very long time.


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