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How Current Racial Justice Campaigns Compare To The 1960s' Civil Rights Movement

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Racial unrest around the country continues with concerns related to police use of force on people of color. Chicago dealt with  protesters and rioters over the weekend following a police shooting, and Phoenix had arrests in recent days after a protest near police headquarters. Many observers have compared the current push for racial justice with the 1960s civil rights effort, and some similarities are easy to find. But there are significant differences, too. With me to put that into context is Matthew Delmont, professor of history at Dartmouth. Matt, does this feel different to you or does it feel like you've seen it before and it may not lead to much progress?

MATTHEW DELMONT: I think there are similarities and differences. I think what seems different to me right now is just the scale and the scope of the protests that we've seen over the course of the summer. I think scholars like myself who work on social movements would generally agree that this is the largest social movement in U.S. history. What's impressive to me is when you look at the maps of across the country, how many cities and towns have been protesting and just the number of people, the range of different demographic groups that have been protesting, the number of international protests that's been going on, that, there is certainly a huge number of protests during the peak of the civil rights movement — the 1950s and '60s. But to see this concentration nationally and globally is really unprecedented. So I think that is different. I think what's similar is, I think a couple of things. One, obviously, the issue of police violence against black people. You could find examples from any year over the last century or even longer of police killing African Americans. And so that's, that's not new, and African Americans raising their voices and protesting against that is not new. I think part of the sort of similarity is that there's something of a sense of exhaustion, I think, for a lot of black people in the United States that this has been going on so long that people are desperately hoping at this time will be different. And I think that's the challenge that's in front of the country now, is whether this sense of urgency can be maintained beyond the summer and whether this can actually be a point of change, whether people can, can take the actions necessary to make this the time that actually is different.

GOLDSTEIN: Now, when we consider how long this has been going on, I mean, this is part of American history — this is not something that started in the '60s or started with George Floyd. I wonder about whether it is believable that folks who look like me knew there was a problem but weren't doing enough about it or that they just really didn't know it was this bad a problem.

DELMONT: I think that's a good question. And I honestly, as a scholar, I, I wonder sometimes how much people, white Americans in particular, know about racism in their communities or in the country. I think on some level, education is extremely important. So if one outcome of this summer is that millions more white Americans understand that racism and racial violence are real issues, that these are not things that are false reported or not things that are just figments of people's imagination, but these are deeply entrenched structural issues. I think that's, that's tremendously valuable. I think education can only take us so far, though. And so I think that next step is moving from education to action. And I think that's, that's where ultimately we have to get to this summer and beyond. That it's not enough for people to reali— finally realize that these are real issues that hopefully people should realize that decades and decades ago. We welcome people to understand it now, and that's, that's great. But I think the next step is to go from that knowledge and that awareness to action. How do we, if we identify these problems that we don't want to see happen any more in our communities, how do we change? How do we make sure that the summer of 2025, the summer of 2030, isn't just a repeat of this?

GOLDSTEIN: Matt, how segregated are our communities right now in America and whether it's formal segregation or informal?

DELMONT: Hugely segregated. I think it's one of the great misnomers for average Americans that they think that at the end of the civil rights, end of the mainstream civil rights movement, in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Act and those important advances, that segregation went away. I want to take nothing away from the achievements of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the importance of the Civil Rights Act, that it did do a great deal to end the system of Jim Crow segregation, the system of American apartheid in the United States. But it absolutely did not end racism, and absolutely did not end segregation. And I think what we see in our community today is segregation, not only along racial lines, but also along socioeconomic lines. And that really works to the detriment of many, many Americans, the kind of vast wealth inequality we see in our country and the ways in which the ZIP code you grew up in can very much determine your future trajectory, not only where you're able to go to school, whether you're able to own a home, whether able to pass down any sort of resources to your children, but also even how long you live. Life expectancy often correlates with, with ZIP code and with the aspects of segregation. So I think that's when we talk about structural racism in the way in which so many of these, these ills are sort of, kind of encoded in the policies of our country, a lot of it goes to history of housing segregation in the country that's still with us today.

GOLDSTEIN: When we mention the civil rights movement of the '60s, can you put in perspective how significant that was in terms of the obstacles that overcame? But whether when we look at where we are in 2020, does it feel like there hasn't been a lot of progress since then? There was a tremendous amount of progress in a short amount of time, but maybe not quite as much as there should have been, or certainly not nearly as much as there should've been. But in comparison, does it feel like there's just been sort of a trickle in that ocean?

DELMONT: I think it's easy to take for granted how much that generation of activists achieved. The system of Jim Crow segregation that was in the United States. It really was like a system of apartheid in America. It treated African Americans as second-class citizens and worse as being less than human. The folks who dedicate their lives in many cases gave their lives over decades to produce the achievements in the legislation that came out with the rights in the 1960s, they helped to secure democracy. They helped to try to make some of America's founding ideals actually be, be real. Not just be things that are written on paper, but actually be, be values and be aspirations that we live up to. I think at the same time, racism is very resourceful, and people who benefit from racism and white supremacy very quickly pivoted to different ways of achieving a lot of the same ends. And I think that's really been the story without oversimplifying it. That's been the story from the mid-1960s through now, that the way in which resources would flow towards white communities and away from communities of color. In the first part of the 20th century, it was largely encoded through official segregation policies. In the second part of the 20th century, it was done through much more underhanded or seemingly colorblind or race neutral policies, but a lot of the outcomes were the same. Too many students of color attending underfunded schools. Too many people of color not being able to buy homes in certain neighborhoods or not being able to to rent homes. The number of housing discrimination cases, just, these things haven't gone away. And I think that's the kind of twin legacy, and if we think about the legacy of someone like John Lewis, taking seriously how much he and that generation accomplished, but then taken seriously, how much is still left for, for us to, to do now.

GOLDSTEIN: We will stop there. That is Matthew Delmont. He's a history professor at Dartmouth College. Matt, thanks very much for the conversation.

DELMONT: Thanks for having me.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.