During his interview last month with BET’s Jeff Johnson, President Barack Obama called for black youth to be patient in their fight for equality.
“You know, when you're dealing with something that's as deeply rooted as racism or bias in any society, you've got to have vigilance but you have to recognize that it’s going to take some time and you just have to be steady so that you don’t give up when we don’t get all the way there,” the president said.
But patience, which we’re told is a virtue, is not one necessary for fighting racism. In fact, you could argue that patience can be the enemy when comes to battling our nation’s oldest scourge.
The Civil War was the result of “patience,” of the belief that slavery needed to be handled delicately, with kid gloves, with the hope that some other generation would come along, have an epiphany and get rid of the shameful institution. Slave owners were placated and pandered to, all while the controversial practice was setting the nation on the path to a bloody war. All efforts to prevent war without ending slavery prolonged the inevitable. When there was a chance after the war to rebuild a society that matched the egalitarian rhetoric of our founding documents, northerners let the opportunity slip away. They abandoned Reconstruction, leaving freed slaves to the mercy of their former masters, who would build a system of apartheid through Jim Crow laws. The racist society that resulted from Jim Crow and segregation solidified the racist views we are still contending with today.
The Founding Fathers – the original “kick the slavery can down the road” crew – indirectly set us on this path. Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves, fathered children with his slaves, wrote “all men are created equal” while supporting an institution that contradicted that view was chief among those who hoped someone else would end slavery who wasn’t him.
As Stephen E. Ambrose wrote for the Smithsonian: “Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime. He thought abolition of slavery might be accomplished by the young men of the next generation.”
Even if change does finally come (after decades upon decades), it shouldn’t have to stall so many lives in the interim.
The Civil Rights Movement was fueled by the energy and ideas of young people – it was not originally a mature person’s game. The same can be said for the anti-war movement, the women right’s movement and other progressive movements. Typically, it’s been youth who lead the way because they were not complacent and dead set on seeing change happen within their life time – not generations later. Hearing that you can work hard and maybe your grandchildren will benefit doesn’t appeal to a 16 year old protesting the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He isn’t marching just for Brown, but for himself because he could be next.
This is where the president’s words, while important, can become a bit frustrating. President Obama told black youth that “things are better” than they were “fifty years ago” when it comes to race relations in America, and while this is true, this “better” also includes young black men and women being harassed, beaten and even killed by police during what should be routine interactions.
Yes, we can all use whatever bathroom we want and drink from whatever water fountain. African Americans now have a seat at America’s lunch counter without fear of battery, but do we get to own the lunch counter? African Americans are still living largely segregated lives, dealing with discrimination for housing and bank loans, economic insecurity, getting their resumes thrown in the trash based on how “ethnic” their names sound and being punished more harshly by our prison industrial complex in larger numbers than white defendants for similar crimes.
Hearing that it’s better than it was doesn’t change how bad it still is, especially when you are young and black and feel you and your friends are being targeted and discriminated against. Things being “better” didn’t save Eric Garner from that chokehold.
During the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sometimes bumped heads with older civil rights groups because of their tactics. SNCC, which orchestrated the Freedom Summer actions, sending students both black and white into Mississippi to registers blacks to vote, was aggressive. They took the fight directly to the source, and openly challenged the system. Some lost their lives, which was the primary fear of an action as radical as registering black voters in the Deep South. But their actions and the lives that were lost put pressure on Congress and President Lyndon Johnson to confront directly a can they desperately wanted to kick down the road, by passing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Johnson was sympathetic to Civil Rights to a certain extent, but activists had to force him to act. Activists who were young and had no interest in their lives being dictated by racism and wanted change now, not a few years later, not a generation later, but now. They were not interested in “easing” into reforms for the Jim Crow South. They wanted the National Guard protecting James Meredith when he became the first black student at Ole Miss. They wanted action and action meant the rights of African American citizens protected by force if necessary. They wanted laws passed, and through the radical actions of the young and their allies, they got them.
No one who was young who protested to end Jim Crow was patient about that and those protesting over the deaths of Brown and Garner shouldn’t be patient either.
Young activists changed things for themselves and for future generations. It’s the same now with those organizing around police brutality. Change will happen because they will demand that it happen now. Not a series of small reforms over decades, but substantial change that will impact their lives this year and next year and within five years. It will happen in a way that those protesting today will get to see the change occur – if they stick with it, if they keep going, if they organize.
“Patience” always sounds nice because people are trying to avoid the messier parts of Democracy, but few things in this country ever got done out of people being patient. Young people have to make their demand now.
You can start by registering to vote at www.ourtime.org/vote