The More Things Change…

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Trayvon martinA little over fifty years ago, James Baldwin, the noted author recalled a conversation he had with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy.  He told Baldwin that he could see a time thirty years from that date when a Black man could be president of the United States.  After mulling over such a possibility, Baldwin pondered to himself:  “What I am really curious about is just what kind of a country he’ll be president of.”

It would certainly be a different kind of country if a Black man was in the White House, Baldwin later concluded.

But do we live in a different country now than when Baldwin’s words commanded the day?  Has there been enough change—to recall the mantra of President Obama’s campaign—to signal, for example, a dramatic difference from the turbulent sixties?

The senseless murder of Trayvon Martin has sent some commentators reeling back to the past, recalling the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955.

Others have invoked the memory of Jackie Robinson and the racism he encountered during spring training in Florida with the Brooklyn Dodgers back in the day.

Michelle Alexander in her recent book “The New Jim Crow” takes us all the way back to the plantation, observing that there are more Black men in the correctional control system today than were in bondage in 1850.

During this same long, dark night of American history the Grandfather Clause, poll taxes, and literacy tests kept us from the polls today we face opponents of the democratic process with the imposition of more subtle means of disenfranchisement via voter ID and other ways to minimize, if not nullify, the Black vote.

It’s hard to see the difference between the Southern Strategy of Dixiecrats led by Strom Thurmond and James Eastland and the attacks today on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the virulent right wing.

Racial profiling and stop and frisk are not at all dissimilar to some of the draconian restrictions of the slave codes and the Black Codes of yesteryear.

Yes, we can talk about the relative changes that make life a more tolerable today for Black Americans, but the key word here is “relative.”

For each step forward merely brings another more sophisticated way of limiting our access to our rights as a citizen, denying our human capability.

Is the seemingly irremovable Guantanamo Bay any more atrocious than the American gulags of the past?

When a soldier goes berserk in Afghanistan it’s easy to remember the massacre at My Lai.       

What we need to recover from the past are some of the same tactics and strategies that brought about dramatic change during the civil and human rights movements. The Occupy Movement is a vestige of a current action that resembles those halcyon days.

But, after all is said and done and realizing the past is always with us, we return again to the sagely Baldwin and an expression he often cited and one that is just as useful now as it was then—Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose—the more things change the more they remain the same.