The 1960s divided America. An activist and rebellious youth fought, sang and partied for more freedom and equality. The Civil Rights Movement, the free speech campaign at Berkeley and anti-Vietnam war protests helped push America into a necessary blender of tumult and turbulence.
Now, one of the divides of contemporary American culture separates those who celebrate the progress, changes and improvements the country has made in the past five decades, and those who believe we still live in the 1960s.
Trapped in a sociopolitical version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” there is a powerful cadre of citizens devoted to maintaining the fight against racism, sexism and other “isms,” even though, thankfully, the prejudices of the past lose relevance every day.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled to remove a section of the Voting Rights Act that placed the voting laws and procedures of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, under federal authority. Lawmakers passed the provision in 1965, because the singled-out states had such a cruel record of racism. No reasonable person believed that elected leaders in those states would fairly implement the reforms of the Voting Rights Act and open the polls to black voters. It was a good move and one that ensured accountability. Consider that in Mississippi, in the 1964 election, black voter turnout was a mere 6 percent.
But in 2012, the percentage of black voters in Mississippi, along with black voter turnout in eight of the nine states singled out by the law, was higher than white voter turnout. Looking at the new data confirms that the worst offenders of voter suppression in the 1960s have now achieved voter equality. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that there was no good reason to continue to punish states based on “40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”
President Obama disagreed, claiming “deep disappointment in the ruling.” Al Sharpton said that the decision “cancels Martin Luther King’s dream” and Bill Maher called it “racism 2.0.” The fact that a higher percentage of black people than white people in the previously punished states voted for a black president, who won re-election, is of no importance to Sharpton, Maher or even that president.
It’s not just in the campaign to divide the country between “racists” and egalitarians that statistics, evidence and logical argument are dismissed.
President Obama won re-election in part because he convinced a significant percentage of the electorate that American culture, led by the Republican Party, is waging a patriarchal “war on women.” Obama, naturally, was the knighted dragon slayer dedicated to protecting every maiden from attack.
The problem with the sexism narrative is that women now graduate college at higher rates than men. They hold 51.4 percent of managerial positions. They are rising in all the professions, while men are dropping, and in married households, they account for 40 percent of breadwinners.
In America, leading institutions were undeniably at one time racist and sexist, but we have steadily marched toward equality. Racism and sexism, like all forms of evil, will never die, because evil itself is ineradicable, but they maintain no influence over the general culture.
But in liberal “Groundhog Day,” America of 2013 is just like America of 1965.
One of the college courses I teach is African-American Literature and Blues and Jazz Music. I instruct my students that the beauty and brutality of American history is impossible to understand or appreciate without a full confrontation with the role that race has played in the formation and evolution of the country.
It is important to study history and realize that America, like any country, will never become a sociological Eden. But to parrot the slogans of 1968, while rejecting the evidence that proves their vacuity, is to not only to deny reality, but also to encourage racial resentment and gender tension and advance a debilitating culture of victimhood. It also ignores the real problems of today — the lack of economic opportunity leading to upward mobility, our failing public schools and the infringements on personal freedom.
The crises of the 21st century are solvable only by people living in the 21st century.
Masciotra is the author of “All That We Learned About Livin’: The Art and Legacy of John Mellencamp” (forthcoming, The University Press of Kentucky) and “Against Traffic: Essays on Politics and Identity.” For more information visit www.davidmasciotra.com.