Few societies in modern history have been more invested in the social construct of race than the United States. The perpetuation of race-based chattel slavery in a nation founded on radical notions of individual freedom fueled enduring, albeit simplistic, dualities around the concepts of “black” and “white” in American law and culture. Although a gruesome civil war ended the legal institution of slavery, it was not enough to prevent the ongoing political and social marginalization of those of “traceable” African descent. Our obsession with race has been at the root of some of the most shameful incidents in our history, but it has also led to some of our greatest triumphs in response.
One of those triumphant events occurred 50 years ago this summer, when the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although designed to address more than racial discrimination, the act is seen as a great triumph of the civil rights movement and the effort to end discrimination against black people in the United States. The legislation helped complete the transformation of the United States from a parochial, self-involved nation to the pre-eminent global power it is today.
Fifty years is a long time in a human life—an entire life in my case—so it is becoming increasingly difficult for people alive today to imagine what the United States was like prior to 1964. For those who do remember, the changes unleashed by the Civil Rights Act were extraordinary and were part of a period of jarring cultural and legal change.
Prior to 1964, racial discrimination and racial segregation were habitual and ingrained parts of life for most Americans. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed racial segregation in public schools in 1954, there continued to be widespread resistance to that ruling in the early 1960s and for many years thereafter, in both the North and the South. Segregation was still the norm in most other areas of life, both implicitly and explicitly.
In the mid-1950s, my grandfather and his brothers migrated to the oil towns of south Louisiana from the surrounding rural civil parishes to satisfy the growing need for low-skilled and semi-skilled labor. On payday, they would make their way to the oil refinery to collect their wages. On some days they would be paid right away. At other times they would spend the entire day watching while every white person at the plant was called into the office to be paid, which often meant that they did not get their money until the end of the day. These practices were part of the everyday indignities of being black in the United States, hardly worth remarking upon for many of those who suffered them despite the inconvenience and humiliation they caused, and not unlike certain types of indignities often suffered by undocumented migrants today. Marginalization and powerlessness make one easy prey for casual acts of cruelty, both petty and severe.
By the early 1960s, it was clear that how Americans thought about race was changing, but real change would still be a long time coming. In 1961, my wife’s father became one of the first black engineers hired by Bell Labs. He was hazed relentlessly upon his arrival—garbage was dumped on his chair and effigies swung routinely from his desk lamp. Meantime, he and his wife struggled to find a decent place to live until my mother-in-law took matters into her own hands. Apartment hunting on her own, her olive skin and long, brown hair announced a suitable tenant for an apartment in the affluent town of Summit, N.J., where they ultimately settled and where my wife spent her early years. Nevertheless, buying a home there proved very difficult—my mother-in-law could not buy a home by herself—and they ultimately settled in a more diverse but increasingly segregated and declining city nearby. Like so many other black professionals of their era, if they wanted to live in a community that offered them some measure of acceptance, they were denied an opportunity to build wealth through their investment in their homes, which often lost value as their neighborhoods become more segregated over time.
The Civil Rights Act became the catalyst for a torrent of legislation designed to promote racial and gender equality, fair housing and pay equity, but when one looks back over the history of the last 50 years, what is particularly conspicuous is how long it took for real change to take root, and how often much of it was due to extraneous factors like economic change, immigration and, more prosaically, the passage of time. What is equally striking, however, is what appears on the horizon. Although it may be too early to call the United States a post-racial nation, clearly the emergence of that type of society is well underway.
Despite the pervasiveness of race as a driving feature of our history, Americans are very uncomfortable embracing and owning that history as a communal story integral to our shared identity. Many people often bend over backward to pretend that they do not see race in everyday life—how many times has someone been described in excruciating detail before we are told that he or she is black?—although they typically are very comfortable acknowledging the corrosive ongoing effects of racism institutionally and structurally. Others tend to insist that American racism was simply an unfortunate aberration from the nation’s glorious founding story. Many insist that race no longer matters and resist even modest efforts to offer redress for America’s racist past. That is unfortunate, because we also have some victories over our racial demons that are well worth celebrating, and these moments in our history signify some singular accomplishments of the American experiment.
The United States was not unique in its creation and maintenance of an underclass, although few nations are so quick to assign an exceptional status to themselves that would suggest otherwise. Not long ago, in his commencement speech at West Point, President Obama declared that he believed, “with every fiber of [his] being,” in American exceptionalism and that the United States remains the one “indispensable” nation. The Civil Rights Act was certainly a moment of exceptional self-awareness for the United States, and it is almost impossible to imagine such sweeping legislation being passed today. But the United States also had a remarkable attachment to the institution of slavery, long after most other societies had ended the practice, and it took a shockingly brutal civil war to end slavery here. After the war, we maintained a highly effective system of racial segregation through both legal and extra-legal means for another 100 years. All of this marks the United States as exceptional—and perhaps not so indispensable—but not in ways that we generally want to talk about.
But over the last decade or so, there is a growing sense among many Americans that something fundamental has changed in the way we understand race. We have an African-American president who had a white, American mother and Kenyan father. The fastest growing racial category on the U.S. census is now “mixed race,” and suddenly the black/white duality that was so much a part of the American consciousness has begun to sound stilted and anachronistic. In metropolitan Boston, where I live, the black population is growing rapidly because of immigration from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. Many of these immigrants reject the American black/white dichotomy, and many want nothing to do with the term “African-American.” In my own family, most of my children’s first cousins are part of multiracial families, and I expect this to continue as I watch my children date and prepare to select their life partners.
Although it is important to honor the past as we celebrate 50 years of the Civil Rights Act, it is also essential that we consider the future. How will we understand race and racial discrimination in an increasingly multicultural America? The descendants of slaves in the United States still find themselves disproportionately represented in negative statistics about poverty, education, single-parenting, wealth creation and life expectancy. Discrimination and racism still rear their heads on a regular basis. The president has been the victim of a stunning effort by the Republican Party to make it almost impossible for him to govern, and we routinely hear statements from Republican legislators that make it clear they would rather see the government grind to a halt than work with Barack Obama. We have even been treated to the shocking indignity of the president being heckled by a member of Congress during a State of the Union address. Yes, I think a lot of that is about race, but how much longer can angry white men (for the most part) from gerrymandered districts ignore America’s multiracial reality and the long-term challenge this will present to politics in our democracy?
As someone whose possibilities in life were transformed by the Civil Rights Act, I am deeply indebted to the men and women in the civil rights movement and in the government who had the courage and vision to make it a reality. But looking ahead, I will welcome an America that will no longer be cast in black and white. I am encouraged by the young men and women I meet from places like Ghana, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Brazil who have pushed Americans toward a richer and more global understanding of black identity. I celebrate immigration from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere, which has been instrumental in making our cities more cosmopolitan, vibrant and welcoming.
In many ways, the treatment of immigrants is emerging as a new civil rights issue, and it raises a number of concerns around exclusion, membership and participation in a democratic society that characterized the civil rights movement in the mid-20th century. These issues should have particular resonance for Catholics because our social teaching takes a very strong position in support of social inclusion for the poor and the stranger. As Congress devours resources of time and money to accomplish little of lasting value when it comes to immigration, their inaction and indifference should announce an opportunity for the rest of us to act in a way that honors the legacy of the Civil Rights Act.
Immigration is no more a threat to the United States than was letting black people compete for jobs on an equal footing or buy houses where they wanted. Treating people with dignity regardless of the color of their skin, their gender, sexual orientation or national origin does involve letting go of long-held prejudices, and it does require change. Embracing the possibilities and opportunities that will come with a more humane system of immigration in this country will allow us to recognize the reality of a change that is already underway and offers hope to our children and grandchildren that the multicultural America that is emerging around them will be a place of hope, opportunity and strength, as opposed to an angry fortress of fear.
There was a lot of fear back in 1964, and overcoming centuries of racial discrimination in this country is still a work in progress. But we are at our best as a society when we are open to the possibilities of the many and when we look beyond ourselves to see God in the face of the other. Celebrating the Civil Rights Act allows us to remember a very difficult period in our shared history and reminds us how far we have moved beyond it. It also recalls the decency and vision of those who came before us who knew that this nation could be better. Developing a humane, fair immigration policy would be one more step toward reaching that goal—and a fitting way to honor the legacy of the Civil Rights Act in a nation that is quickly moving beyond black and white.