Arguably, one of the best films of the year, Selma, is about to open in limited release on Christmas Day, and then Jan. 9 nationwide. Selma tells the story of the marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma, Alabama to its capitol, Montgomery, leading to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
It’s hard to imagine a time when racism was even more insidious than it is today, coupled with undisguised discrimination, which is how things were in this country at that time. However, I worry that the lessons of Selma, and Dr. King, have not been properly learned and that bigots have only mastered the ability to better hide their intolerance. In the wake of Ferguson, and the Eric Garner case in Staten Island, that may be too simplistic an explanation.
If we unfold the past, specifically in Alabama in 1964, perhaps it may illustrate where we are today. President Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Yet, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, and his racist, hate-filled constituency ignored federal law in favor of Jim Crow. These state-mandated segregation laws made it impossible for black Americans to enjoy dining out or simply going to a movie without the fear they would be beaten or arrested. The underpinning of which feels all too familiar.
Dr. King’s message was one of peace and unity, advocating for the idea that these are not “black problems” but American problems. Intellectually, it seems preposterous to have an opinion about an entire race, or even an individual, just based on the color of their skin. Shouldn’t we judge actions? I hate pedophiles of all kinds. Everyone should. That makes sense to me, but having an opinion about a person based on skin color seems stupid.
As a developmental psychologist I can tell you that racism is learned, it is not innate. Study after study has shown that children play with other children without even a notion of race. Certainly they might notice differences, however they don’t form opinions based on those observations. Further, and frankly more disturbing, one particular study at the University of Texas found that it’s white parents who do more damage by adopting a “color blind” approach, meaning, they act like they don’t even notice color. Research has shown that not discussing racial differences with children can be just as detrimental as promoting negative stereotypes about them. In contrast, minority mothers talk to their children about race all the time. What this and other studies have found was that children come to their own conclusions about race, often wrong ones, and if parents aren’t discussing it with them it sends the message that it must be a bad thing.
One of the more disturbing differences between what we see in the film, Selma, and what’s happening in our country right now, has to do with televising protests in general. In 1965 people witnessed, for the first time on television, news coverage of white police turning fire hoses and dogs on black protestors. These images galvanized many in the nation to come to Alabama and join the cause along side Dr. King and his fellow civil rights protesters. People of all races did that. Whereas today we are so desensitized to images such as protests, marches and even violence that complaints like, “They’re blocking traffic” and “Won’t this hurt Christmas shopping?” end up superseding the more important message.
Attitudes about race really haven’t changed that much. Viewpoints surrounding Ferguson protests, for example, were so polarized; there really wasn’t a consensus or thoughtful discussion. Today, there might be more people of all ethnicities who are concerned and do take action, but the fact remains… we still have the need. The fact that we do is sad and disheartening, but hardly surprising. Racism isn’t something that will go away in a couple of generations. It is an ongoing battle that, distressingly, may never end.