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Herb Rothschild Jr.: A second movement

We’re now in the midst of a second civil rights movement. Just as the abolition movement ended slavery but not inequality for African Americans, so the first civil rights movement ended legal inequality but not the myriad other impediments to equal standing in U.S. society. These range from the blatant — notably the deep racism of our criminal justice system — to the inadvertent, like miscues by white people who don’t deserve to be labeled racists.

I see three major differences between the current struggle and the first civil rights movement. One is that it’s national, not sectional. This changes what is required for success. Southern segregation, legally sanctioned and coercively enforced, didn’t end because white Southerners had a change of heart. That was impossible, given how deeply bigotry was ingrained in the Southern psyche as well as in Southern institutions. It ended because the movement mobilized opinion outside the South, which then used federal law and law enforcement to end Jim Crow. But our second civil rights movement cannot look outside for help. And law cannot be its primary tool, though voting rights again must be secured. This time we’ll have to mobilize everywhere a personal commitment to fairness and decency.

A second major difference is that the goal of the current civil rights movement is equal standing for all non-white residents, as well as for women and LGBTQ people. Bigotry is strongest where the position of a dominant group is most threatened. Blacks always made up a larger percentage of the population in the South than elsewhere, so racism was most virulent there. Now, white hegemony is threatened throughout the U.S. by changing demographics. The struggle has shaped up between those who cling to an image of a white “Christian” America and everyone else, especially Hispanics, who are the largest and numerically fastest-growing minority. Small wonder Trump has gotten so much political mileage by trashing Mexicans.

A third major difference is that non-whites, women and LGBTQ people themselves now have far more political, economic, and cultural power to wage the struggle than Southern blacks had. The first civil rights movement would have been crushed had not whites outside the South been stirred to help. Today, the movement’s chance of success will vastly improve if whites support it, but it cannot be crushed unless Trump is elected and turns the U.S. into the police state Mississippi used to be.

This year is shaping up to be for the second struggle what 1964-1965 was for the first. On one side, Republican officials at every level have been openly combative since a black person was elected president. Now their George Wallace has emerged, and this time they’ve embraced him. Hate speech and hate crimes are increasing. In April the Southern Poverty Law Center published research indicating the Trump campaign is inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in U.S. classrooms nationwide. On the other side, graphic exposure by phone cameras has made routine police violence against people of color no longer tolerable and sparked renewed grassroots activism.

I suggest to my fellow whites that we acknowledge how little most of us know about the experience of peoples still emerging from oppression. Let’s not spend energy criticizing the minor excesses of those struggling for full equality. Instead, let’s recognize how high the stakes are, follow their leadership when possible, and do what we can.

Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.