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October 25, 2005

Thanks, Rosa Parks

Because white people are dumbasses, we tend to have one of two dumbass responses to the Civil Rights movement. Either it's (1) deep, smoldering resentment, or (2) a kind of asinine we-just-luv-the-Civil-Rights-movement wow-we're-morally-elevated let's-all-sing-Kumbaya feeling.

Instead, white people should be deeply grateful to the Civil Right movement—not because it was morally right (though obviously it was) but because it was good for white people. There's a moment in Eyes on the Prize where they show an interview with a white Civil Rights worker in Mississippi soon after Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been murdered. The interviewer asks the white guy if he's scared, and he says, "Of course I am. Everybody here is." Then the interviewer asks why he's staying there, and he replies: "Because I think my own freedom is completely bound up with the freedom of every other person."

This sounds like a bunch of high-faluting hoo-ha, but incredibly enough, it's true. Here's how I understand what he meant, from the smallest level to the highest:

1. American racism hasn't just been hideous for African Americans (though obviously that's been its most important effect). It's also crippled the humanity of white people in a profound way. The Civil Rights movement helped heal white people; we should be grateful for this just like we'd be grateful to a doctor who helped us walk again.

If you're white and you don't know what I'm talking about, you're in big trouble.

2. The diminishment of racism has also improved white people's daily lives. I know I've met a wide circle of people that I never would have if I'd lived before the Civil Rights movement, and my life is much, much more enjoyable because of it.

3. Most importantly, the increase in the political power of African Americans—though it's still nowhere near the level it should be—has increased the political power of most WHITE Americans. The great lie of American society is that politics is a zero sum game in which any increase in African American political power is matched by a decrease for white Americans. This is completely wrong. For instance, look at who's led the fight on the Downing Street Memo—mostly it's been the Congressional Black Caucus. They've been the voice for the voiceless, both black and white. (For their troubles, of course, they've predictably been sneered at by appallingly jejune reporters.) This generalizes on a million different issues. If you're white, unless you're a billionaire, you better hope black Americans get more powerful.

It's important to understand all this because people operate out of self-interest. There's nothing wrong with that, and even if there were, there's nothing we can do about it. For political movements to get anywhere, they have to help people see that most moral claims are not contrary to but actually are fused with their self-interest. We can only get what we want for ourselves if we help other people get what they want.

To put it in the coldest, starkest terms, there are a lot of white soldiers who've been killed in Iraq because their parents and other white people didn't work with African Americans for the past forty years to help everyone get better lives. If they'd done so, black people and white people would have had enough power together to stop this war before it began. But they didn't, and we couldn't, and now their children are dead.

Still, in part because of the Civil Rights movement, we may have enough power to stop the war before it kills all of us. So for that—and for much more—white people, black people and every kind of people should say: thank you, Rosa Parks.

Posted at October 25, 2005 03:25 PM | TrackBack

Yes! All this! And a lot more besides!!

Thanks, Jon.

Posted by: Winter Patriot at October 25, 2005 04:06 PM

Extremely well said, and "this black person" thanks you.
If only this appeared in the American consciousness instead of the usual "I know/knew black people" spiel by Bushco...

Posted by: The tECHIDNA at October 25, 2005 04:20 PM

Isn't it funny that Rosa Parks should die at the same time American casualties in Iraq hit two thousand?

It's almost as if irony were after us, or something.

Posted by: Sully at October 25, 2005 04:58 PM

Winter Patriot,

Thanks, much appreciated. It's hard for me to know with such writing whether or not I'm indulging in my own form of dumb-assery.


Thanks, very glad you liked it. The tough thing is that for white Americans, this perspective requires a complete reconstruction of your personality. At least it did for me. And most people understandably shy away from this. Everyone hates change even when you'll be happier afterward.


I like to think that the human race will be in the end be killed by irony. That way, at least the last person to go will get a good long laugh.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 25, 2005 05:09 PM

Maybe this caveat is unnecessary, but I feel the need to: let's not at all fool ourselves that the work is done. Things are better, but only in degree, not in kind. It's a long way up the ladder still. I see it every day - in myself, in my neighborhood, on the bus, in the words of everyone around me. And this time we have to confront things that are much harder to cope with than institutionalized bigotry. Laws are easy to rewrite. Our own attitudes, class hierarchies and the weight of culture are much, much harder to overthrow.

Posted by: saurabh at October 25, 2005 09:11 PM

That feeling the need to keep your boot on someone else's neck is an incredible limitation on one's own life should be obvious, yet we needed Rosa Parks and a host of others to free us from that need. And I keep thinking the illogic of imposing democracy on people at gunpoint is obvious, too.

Posted by: Maud at October 26, 2005 07:02 AM

American racism's also crippled the humanity of white people in a profound way.

Frederick Douglas wrote about this in his autobiography. When he first met his master's wife she was sweet tempered, and even tried to teach him how to read and write. When he left the family she had grown nasty and petty towards him, loving her total power over another human being.

Posted by: Cal at October 26, 2005 06:27 PM

Rosa Parks was a woman that changed america big!She did a great thing for african americans.She will be remebered.

Posted by: Jordan at October 27, 2005 01:38 PM

A truly great American has passed on. Give Dr King our regards.

Posted by: En Ming Hee at October 27, 2005 07:48 PM


It will probably take as much time for the U.S. to purge itself of its racial insanity as it took us to do it in the first place. We're just starting the process now, and since we took 400 years to get here, we may have 400 years to go.


Yes, but as I said above, humans hate change...even when it's good for them. It's amazing what people are willing to do to avoid changing themselves, up to and including blowing up the world.


Thanks for that—I've never read Douglas' autobiography, although I've certainly been assigned to read it many times.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 27, 2005 08:53 PM