Thursday, March 24, 2016

Can We Actually End Racism/ Sexism? Breaking Down Systematic Oppression


Since kindergarten, we have been conditioned to view the world in terms of character versus color. Every teacher toted Martin Luther King's iconic words on a 1980's poster, a side profile with a view of thousands of listeners. 1963's March of Washington  revolutionized the paradigm. People in the world were beginning to see that change starts with the mindset. If we think differently about people, then we will begin to treat people differently; we will begin to value others as humans as we are and obey the golden rule that God literally put in stone. We knew the world would just change and be a better place post 1963. In 1964 and 1965, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts were passed and it was the end of de jure discrimination for all in the United States; we would all now only be judged for the content of our characters, not our skin color, nation of origin, gender to name a few......if only any of those things were true.

Despite Martin Luther King's crafty phrases and powerful podium prose, the country's racial turmoil never fully ceased. In 1968's, the front runners of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. The United States government were actively seeking and killing Black Panther members in the United States. Feminism arose as women felt the need to fight for the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. Women achieved such victories with earning the right to vote, Title IX, the creation of the EEOC, the passage of abortion access and birth control. Looking at today's political landscape, it would not be too presumptuous to say that the United States has some sort of perpetuation of these social movements. Many would consider the legislative victories to be the end of these social movements, the creation of a new era. In a world of Barack Obama, Beyonce, and Hillary Clinton, progress seems to be not only on the radar, but in practice. The country is taking more active efforts to positively perceive race with California working on an ethnic studies curriculum for secondary education, that the nation is soon to mimic.  2009's Lilly Ledbetter Act ensures the equal pay and protection of men and women in the workplace. But perhaps, there is something to be said about the resurgence of these movements. I would argue that these movements have not simply resurged, but are in fact, the status quo for systems founded on various types of subjugation.; they have and will always persist, in some manner in the United States. When we think of specific types of isms (racism, sexism) as products of a particular system, not attitudes that have caused inequality, we can greater assess the implications and implement realistic change regarding the issue itself.


In order to answer the question of whether or not inequalities are byproducts or causes of social systems, we must first assess what is considered a social movement, then we must look at the historical representations of these movements. In its basic nature, social movements are grassroots responses to a social problem. According to Britannica, a social movement is described as, “loosely organized but sustained campaign in support of a social goal, typically either the implementation or the prevention of a change in society’s structure or values.” The political science view determines a social movement a success or a failure based on its political impact. The sociological view does not necessary look at a social movement based on its impact, but its ability gather people with like-minded views on a societal problem to make collective claims. Under these two paradigms, any social movement could be a success or failure at the same exact time. Taking the definition of a social movement much further: a social movement is when a group of people fundamentally agree that there is a social problem, may or may not have different ideologies on the solution, and are making efforts to bring awareness, improve, and/ or change the conditions of the social problem against the status quo. If a group of people do this in any way, they are a social movement. Based on this definition alone, there is never a moment in which we are not within a social movement. Even the quiet sustained efforts of the oppressed are very vocal acts of resistance to the ways of being (the system). Two of the greatest examples of sustained resistance in the United States history were/ are women and African Americans. 

The most politically progressive movement in the United States is the women's movement. The women's movement most notably began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Over 300 men and women met to discuss the role of self-dependence in their lives aside from the control and direction of their fathers and husbands. Early feminism was closely tied to the abolitionist and temperance movements (Rampton). Organizational efforts, such as the Women's Suffrage Parade in 1913 on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in Washington District of Columbia, brought the momentum for the passage of the nineteenth amendment that recognized the woman's right to vote. This is generally noted as the end of the first wave of feminism. It is important to add that they had a clear and specific agenda for women's suffrage and thus were able to achieve a legislative victory. However, the effort of women to achieve voting rights does not end after 1920 simply because of the amendment, this was a victory for White women. The first wave of feminism was mainly characterized (and even today is still sustained) by White middle class women. As stated in Controversy and Coalition “ to make claims on behalf of women or to resist oppression...hides the diversity...in structural position by race, class, and sexual orientation.” (Feree and Hess).

  The lack of diversity and full representation for all women in the first movement can account for the need for the second movement to address the inequality of women on a larger scale. While it is easy to fall under the temptation that there was a period of immobility between the first and second waves, 1920- 1960, this paradigm ignores the fight in between the mass mobilization for theEqual Rights Amendment. During the World War II period, many women's organizations such as the National Women's League and National Women's Party supported the passage of the ERA within the Republic party (Mansbridge). It's important to note the continuity of organizations post mass mobilizations (Taylor).  During this time period, there also were efforts by coalitions such as the ACLU, Margaret Sanger, and Estelle Griswold of Planned Parenthood to deregulate reproductive control on women's bodies (Pliley). 

 The second wave of feminism surged in the early 1960's with Betty (Friedan)'s The Feminine Mystique. Friedan's critique of the cult of domesticity resonated with the middle class women who were taught that their job was to marry and aspire to being a middle class housewife. The woman's life revolved around the satisfaction of her husband and children. This new wave critiqued the reinforcing media image of the beautiful middle class wife with pearls, perfectly groomed hair, the clean apron, cookies on the kitchen counter with milk, and smiles as she watches the children and husband off for the day as portrayed in sit-com classics Leave It To Beaver, and Father Knows Best. In its beginnings, this part of the movement primarily focused on the thoughts and experiences of middle class White women. National Organization for Women (NOW) was a political organization centralized around “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society” (NOW Statement of Purpose). They succeeded in penetrating the political sector with the President's Commission on Women in 1963 that created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Equal Pay Act in 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The movement also failed to reflect the differences in sexuality by assuming collective based on gender. It wasn't until the 1970's, internal differences spurred the Women's Liberation Movement, which focused moreso on women of color, also referred to as third world women, differences in sexuality, agency, and economic class (Nelson) and intersectionality of identity.

 The liberal strands of the movement focused on working within the system, while the radical strand, challenged the system with notions of patriarchy and male privilege. These radical groups, such as the Redstockings, challenged gender roles as a social construction. One example of this being the No More Miss America protest in 1968. In the 1960's, young girls aspired to be Miss America. The radical groups challenged the structure of  picking a “winner” based on the objectification of the contestants. The Redstockings modeled, “the personal is political”, essentially that public forms of patriarchy were also reflected in the private lives. (Ferree and  Hess). Lesbians were having a much more difficult time in the movement and created their own subgroup known as the Lavender Menace as an opposition response to Betty Friedan's belief that lesbianism would undermine NOW. Ti Grace Atkinson remarked, “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” (Echols). Still, third world women had different concerns and found it difficult to resonate with White women in the movement and often started their own organizations such as the Third World Women's Workshops and discussions on female sterilizations with Fannie Lou Hamer (Nelson). The liberal women differed greatly with the sexual liberation discussions of the radical group members under the belief that political and economic determination and desexualization will help women achieve actual freedom (Freedman).

  Essentially the radical strands of the women's movement is what characterized what is known as the third wave of feminism (that is noted to have re-surged in the late 1990's until today).  The conditions and salience of particular issues brought the radicals of the movement more momentum entering into the earlier 1990's. The fight for reproductive rights began arguably nationally since Griswold versus Connecticut in 1965 with birth control access, and more notably Roe versus Wade in 1973 which made abortion legal with constraints in the second and third trimester. The fight continued with the  Hyde Amendment in 1976 that wanted to ban federal funding for abortion, Operation Rescue in 1986, where moralists harassed and blocked abortion seeking women, Webster versus Reproductive Health Services, 1989 that allowed higher restrictions on abortion on the state level, Planned Parenthood v Casey in 1992 that allowed counseling and waiting periods to get an abortion,  FACE to reverse Operation Rescue in 1994, and Gonzalez v Carhart, 2007 that reversed the Hyde Amendment. 

Currently, the movement argues for sexual agency and calls out sexual violence through patriarchy. The movement has trnsitione to queer identities such as tissues regarding gender fluid and transgender women.The liberal strands are still active today, as unequal pay and sex discrimination in the workplace are very present. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into order because men are paid more than women. While it can be viewed that the signature of the Lily Ledbetter equates a success for the liberal strands' goals, I think the better question would be why would such legislation would be needed when the Equal Pay Act, EEOC, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act all were supposed to be responsible for tackling the social problem of unequal pay among the sexes forty five years prior. In response to patriarchy, most men believe in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. It is natural for one to be skeptical that change can truly be implemented with politically progressive achievements. In essence, a bottom up movement inspired top down change, yet, in this cycle, we see the continuation of a particular perception of a social problem and collective claims for change by various generations of women, who are fighting for the same thing. So, despite politically progressive efforts, and victories with the passage of legislation, and still groups of women who advocate for more legislation and bring awareness to lingering inequality, how does one measure progress? If the social perception among the masses are that things are getting better, but the numbers indicate inequality among women, is there a solution to the problem of gender inequality on a system founded and maintained on gender inequality? 

Another continual movement is the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans. The movement had arose out of “ American racism and exploitation therefore generation Black protest subordination in context to Whites.” since the days of slavery (1640- 1865) (Morris). Racism can be traced back to the early sixteenth century, in which Spanish travelers justified colonialism of darker skinned individuals with the Bible. From this very instance in time, we can see systems founded on prejudice to justify systems of power. Years of tripartite, social, political, and economic domination by Whites in the South and resistance on the federal and regional levels with Brown v Board 1954, the successful ten day Baton Rouge strike to end bus segregation, and the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1954, optimized the social conditions and political framework for palpable social resistance (Morris) for the Civil Rights Movement from 1955-1965. The first planned and successfully executed act of resistance was led Rosa Parks, who jump-started the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the boycott lasted until 1956, a little over a year, when the city of Montgomery, Alabama agreed to desegregate public transportation. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, created for regional unification in juxtaposition to the NAACP national audience, garnered national attention as the premiere civil rights group, with charismatic Martin Luther King, Jr. as ahead of the movement (Robnett). His nonviolent approach proved as nonthreatening to White liberals and allowed the Southern movement to gain national and community support, allowing a mass mobilization. Ultimately the purpose of the boycott to hurt the pocketbooks of the economy of the South to show how much Blacks were apart of Southern business (Morris).

The Civil Rights Movement operated in a such a manner that each campaign had a specific goal it meant to achieve. Some of their agenda called for desegregation, end to lynchings, and integration. Organizations within this movement such as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, represented a more grassroots part of the organization. Between 1960 and 1961,SNCC launched a campaign to desegregate lunch counters and interstate travelingwith sit- ins and the freedom rides. With the efforts of the NAACP, SNCC, and SCLC, the Civil Rights Movement was creating all the right conditions that eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after the 1963 March on Washington put pressure on the executive, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the March in Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge; despite mass opposition and failures such as the Albany Campaign in 1961, where Sherriff Prichett studied techniques of nonviolence to effectively combat Martin Luther King, Jr.'s efforts. During this decade of sustained campaigns, the recognition and passage of two federal laws and the 24th Constitutional amendment to ensure voting rights in mostly discriminatory states renders this decade, known as the Civil Rights era, a success in terms of social movement achievements. While many argue that this signifies the end of the most successful and lasting part of the Civil Rights movement, I argue that the Civil Rights movement has yet to end; it has just and continues to reshape itself through the radical strands of the movement.

While the Black Power Movement is often noted as a separate movement than the Civil Rights Movement, I would like to examine the Black Power Movement as the radical strand of the Civil Rights movement rather than a separate force. Both movements are connected in that they believe that the social, economic, and political conditions regarding Black lives relative to Whites are a social problem and action needs to be taken. However, proponents of the movement can better be framed in categories of liberals versus radicals, essentially those who wanted to work within the system versus those who wanted to challenge the system. The political context of the 1955-1960 decade simply were testing periods of various methods within the movement for Black insurgency (McAdam). Leaders of the Black power movement came from the activism of college campuses. During 1961-1965, internal differences began to dramatically affect the relationship between more hierarchical, church organizations such as the SCLC and NAACP, and SNCC. 

  Many SNCC members, who were originally proponents of nonviolence became aggravated with the police force who attacked their peaceful protest, and apathetic about a federal government that did its best to maintain neutrality in the face of it all. The Black radicals, those who worked to challenge the system, recognized the structural oppression as impenetrable. They used to violence of Whites during Martin Luther King's protests as evidence of a system designed to protect and isolate certain groups of people. While police officers were generally viewed as protecting the social welfare of the community, Black radicals viewed police officers, law enforcement, and government officials as those with power to work in the interest of protection of maintaining their power and the power of those who had skin like them. During this time, the United States literally declared war on Black America. Once man saw that attempting to work within the system through nonviolence was not resulting in better treatment, consideration, or change from the government, Black radicalism took rise.

Young SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael advocated for change. At the 1966 March Against Fear, in honor of James Meredith (a Black college student killed for attempting integrate into a White school),  Carmichael exclaimed, “This is the twenty-seventh time I have been arrested and I ain't going to jail no more! The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin' us is to take over. What we gonna start sayin' now is Black Power!” This use of language was large departure from that of the Civil Rights Movement that referred to Blacks as Negros, and made appeals to equality, desegregation, integration, and the moral conscience of America (Younge). While the not all members of the Black Power Movement were separatists, such as the Black Panthers, language was much more critical of the government and social structure of America. Some organizations expelled Whites (such as SNCC when it made the transition to Black Power), and the Black Panther Party's platform viewed the police force as a paramilitary occupying force to maintain the status quo (McAdam), and referred to them as “racist pigs” (Black Panther Party Platform)(Lusane).  The Black Power Movement followed the ideologies of Malcolm X and self- determination , that Whites had no conscience and made statements such as, “ I am not an American, I am a victim of Americanism,”.

 While the SCLC lost momentum after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, and SNCC and CORE lost power after external monetary support withdrew, the mass mobilization through sustained campaigns failed to gain momentum despite the worsening conditions and great opposition arising in the early 1970's and through the 1980's (McAdam). However, sustained efforts of Black resistance have been threaded throughout the 1980's and 1990's through the hip hop movement against police brutality and the drug epidemic. Currently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and NAACP serve as the front running organizations for issues regarding police brutality, income inequality, education rights, and access to political participation and expression. 

We should be weary that both of these social problems are ones as old as the country in which they reside in, yet with each generation, they rise. If these movements, despite at their heights and having multiple perceived achievements, are continual threads in our society, what is the issue? Are we to say that social movements do not work, and therefore should not be apart of the society, or do we blame the structures in place that allow the perpetuation of such issues? Nonetheless, what is the solution? Maybe the historical evidence speaks for itself: there is no solution. A system founded on particular inequality will always that particular inequality as long as the power structure within the system has not changed. 

Originally posted March 16, 2016. Edited, March 24, 2016


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