Blow and Collins

Mr. Nocera is off today.  Both Mr. Blow and Ms. Collins have questions today.  In “50 Years Later” Mr. Blow asks this:  Have many Americans quietly abandoned Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream?  Ms. Collins, in “Where Credit Is Due,” ask this:  Remember the days when a woman couldn’t get a credit card without the permission of her husband, her father or some male relative?  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I have a gnawing in my gut, an uneasy sense of society and its racial reality.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech keeps ringing in my head, an aching, idyllic, rhetorical masterpiece that envisions a future free of discrimination and filled with harmony and equality. But I wonder whether the day he imagined will ever come and whether many Americans have quietly abandoned King’s dream as a vision that can’t — or shouldn’t — exist in reality.

I’m absolutely convinced that enormous steps have been made in race relations. That’s not debatable. Most laws that explicitly codified discrimination have been stricken from the books. Overt, articulated racial animus has become more socially unacceptable. And diversity has become a cause to be championed in many quarters, even if efforts to achieve it have taken some hits of late.

But my worry is that we have hit a ceiling of sorts. As we get closer to a society where explicit bias is virtually eradicated, we no longer have the stomach to deal with the more sinister issues of implicit biases and of structural and systematic racial inequality.

I worry that centuries of majority privilege and minority disenfranchisement are being overlooked in puddle-deep discussions about race and inequality, personal responsibility and societal inhibitors.

I wonder if we, as a society of increasing diversity but also drastic inequality, even agree on what constitutes equality. When we hear that word, do we think of equal opportunity, or equal treatment under the law, or equal outcomes, or some combination of those factors?

And I worry that there is a distinct and ever-more-vocal weariness — and in some cases, outright hostility — about the continued focus on racial equality.

In this topsy-turvy world, those who even deign to raise the issue of racial inequality can be quickly dismissed as race-baiters or, worse, as actual racists. It’s the willful-ignorance-is-bliss approach to dismissing undesirable discussion.

In this moment, blacks and whites see the racial progress so differently that it feels as if we are living in two separate Americas.

According to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, nearly twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the police. More than twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the courts. And about three times as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, in stores or restaurants, in public schools and by the health care system.

In fact, a 2011 study by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard Business School found, “Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.”

And in these divergent realities, we appear to be resegregating — moving in the opposite direction of King’s dream.

The Great Migration — in which millions of African-Americans in the 20th century, in two waves, left the rural South for big cities in the North, Midwest and West Coast — seems to have become a failed experiment, with many blacks reversing those migratory patterns and either moving back to the South or out of the cities.

As USA Today reported in 2011:

“2010 census data released so far this year show that 20 of the 25 cities that have at least 250,000 people and a 20 percent black population either lost more blacks or gained fewer in the past decade than during the 1990s. The declines happened in some traditional black strongholds: Chicago, Oakland, Atlanta, Cleveland and St. Louis.”

In addition, a Reuters/Ipsos poll released this month found that “about 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race.”

Furthermore, there is some evidence that our schools are becoming more segregated, not less. A study this year by Dana Thompson Dorsey of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that “students are more racially segregated in schools today than they were in the late 1960s and prior to the enforcement of court-ordered desegregation in school districts across the country.”

I want to celebrate our progress, but I’m too disturbed by the setbacks.

I had hoped to write a hopeful, uplifting column to mark this anniversary. I wanted to be happily lost in The Dream. Instead, I must face this dawning reality.

Now here’s Ms. Collins:

A few months ago, a saleswoman at Macy’s tried to wheedle me into renewing my expired store credit card by offering a deep discount on the towels I was buying. So I dug it out of my wallet, where it was nestled between an expired press pass to the Texas State Capitol and an expired library card from Manchester, N.H., and happily handed it over.

She looked at it, puzzled. “But this isn’t your name,” she said.

The card said Daniel Collins. That’s my husband, who I believe has never been to Macy’s, or bought a towel, in his entire life.

I flashed back to a moment when I was living in Connecticut. I have no idea what year it was, except that it is very possible Richard Nixon was still president. I was in the Macy’s in New Haven when a woman with a clipboard came up to me and asked me if I wanted to apply for a credit card.

“Absolutely,” I said instantly.

She took up her pen. “What’s your husband’s name?” she asked.

I wish I could tell you that I made a speech about equal rights and headed for the door, but I just let her fill out my application. This was an era when women still needed a male co-signer to get credit. In some places, you needed a husband or father to even get a library card.

Anyway, I was proud of being newly married and dumb about the women’s movement. I worked as a reporter in the Connecticut State Capitol, where the male legislators and male lobbyists and male reporters met in a place called the Hawaiian Room to drink. When a female journalist demanded that she be admitted, too, the media was barred completely. The guys in the press room blamed it all on the one woman, who, I am sorry to say, was not me. My only reaction was to wonder why anyone would want to go to the Hawaiian Room, which was in the attic, with steam pipes along the ceiling festooned with limp plastic leis.

I’m telling you all this because on Monday we will celebrate Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote. That was in 1920, and there’s no longer anyone around who can tell us what that felt like to be disenfranchised because of your sex. But there are plenty of people who recall the time when women couldn’t get credit in their own name.

Next year, if we’re in the mood, we can celebrate the 40th anniversary of the day that Kathryn Kirschbaum, then the mayor of Davenport, Iowa, was told she could not have a Bank of America card without her husband’s signature.

The great thing about Equality Day is that it works in two ways. We can mull both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. The one thought feeds the other. The idea of having 50 women in the U.S. Senate, or 250 female C.E.O.’s in the Fortune 500 seems less far-reaching if you contemplate the fact that in the 1960s, a spokesman for NASA said “talk of an American spacewoman makes me sick to my stomach.” Now, one of the two American astronauts on the International Space Station is a woman, and that is so routine that we’re not even aware of her name. (It’s Karen Nyberg.)

Monday is also the anniversary of the 1970 women’s march for equality in New York, which almost no one expected to be a very big deal. The New York Police Department had only given the marchers permission to use one lane of Fifth Avenue. “Then more people came and more people came and we spilled over, and we took over the entire avenue,” recalled Robin Morgan, the feminist author and activist. “And that was the moment your heart really sang. People were hanging out windows. I kept yelling: ‘Join us!’ ” And some of them, Morgan said, did just that.

Parades are great. For a long time, the drive for suffrage was seen as a depressing slog of petition-gathering by middle-class clubwomen. Then the parades started, and the movement belonged to everyone.

“We did not eat our little lunches in lobster palaces, but out in the street in front of lobster palaces. We stand for plain living and high thinking, that’s it,” a marcher told The New York Times during the equality parade in 1912.

That comment does seem a tad reverse-snobby, but the mixture of socialites and factory workers, marching for one cause, sent a message. It also sounds as though it was a lot of fun. After the march ended, a woman The Times identified as “Miss Annie S. Peck, the mountain climber,” stood on a chair, “waved a Joan of Arc flag, and told her audience that this was the banner that she had planted 21,000 feet above the sea on one of the highest peaks of the Andes.”

There don’t seem to be a lot of parades planned for Monday, which is probably all for the best. Once a parade becomes an annual institution, it becomes less about a political point and more about the afterparties. But we are going to have one heck of a time in 2020.

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One Response to “Blow and Collins”

  1. Pelican Beek Says:

    I’m glad u mentioned the Macy’s Day Parade and the Easter Parade. Who was it that they were all excited about when he fed them fish? I reread your line about no one is around anymore to recall being ostracized for their gender. Had u said gender not sex I would have thought we were part of the same generation. Not so. Some women are still bemoaning the fact they are not able to play a round of golf and that it all went downhill after 92. She was around. She is still. She reads the Times I’ll have u know. I don’t think she ever visits the editorial page. It’s mere opinions. She remembered when she told me how the Catholic school children in Washington Heights chased her down the street and called her a kike. Everyday. She became an atheist. She sat me down in early teen years to watch the remembrance of the holocaust on TV. My first view of it. My first ideation. I am glad women have the vote. She votes.

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