A syllogism printed on a series of placards that I pass every day on my way to work says this: “If you believe that all lives matter, you are right/ all lives should matter/ but all lives can’t matter/ until Black lives matter/ to everyone.” I’ve wondered since I saw it first, what can be said about how Black lives changed in the half-century between the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, and the murder of George Floyd, in 2020?
I wanted a survey. I’ve read several good books about those years, including Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (Norton, 2019), by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer; and Age of Fracture (Harvard Belknap, 2011) by Daniels Rodgers. I tried to make a survey that might satisfy a Sunday reader, using Rogers. I ran out of steam below as I reached the so-called “War on Drugs” and the incarceration mania that accompanied it, lacking a source on the subject as dependable as is Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, on the opioid epidemic that followed.
All American lives change periodically, in Rodgers’ view, and then change again, in accordance with deep social currents of intellectual life. The self-reliant individual celebrated in one century is seen in the next to be forged by social pressures – caste, class, race, “the system.” Ages change every two or three generations, usually in opposition to the age that went before.
The years after the Great Depression and World War II witnessed one of these periodic shifts, Rodgers says. “Conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been thick with context, social circumstance, intuitions and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire…. Notions of structure and power thinned out… The last quarter of the [twentieth] century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture.”
It was not that people ceased banding together in time. “In an age of Oprah, MTV, and charismatic religious preaching, the agencies of socialization were different from before. What changed across a multitude of fronts were the ideas and metaphors capable of holding in focus the aggregate aspects of human life as opposed to its smaller, fluid, individual ones.” Theaters of daily life that Rogers examined include industrial organization, gender politics, rival conceptions of power and community, the role of history, and, of course, race.
In racial politics, Rodgers’ sense of fracture began with the retreat from busing school children from one school district to another as a means of addressing age-old patterns of residential segregation. Private “academies” blossomed, especially in the South. Government housing projects such as the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis and Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes were demolished. The Community Redevelopment Act of 1977 privileged ownership over rental housing.
African-American leaders sought “parity” under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Massive voter registration drives produced the first Black mayors in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans and Birmingham, Alabama. Universities established African-American Studies programs. There was a new Black presence in public life: authors Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou; television series Sanford and Son, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, and, especially, Alex Haley’s mini-series Roots. Eventually, Hollywood filmmakers Spike Lee and Jordan Peele became major figures.
With the late ’70s and ’80s, the pace of change accelerated – the “color-blind” inversion followed, and the first challenges to affirmative action. Awareness grew of the increasing heterogeneity of America’s racial composition: Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Pacific-Americans. And all the while, the periodic riots after beatings or killings or the acquittal of those who committed them. “In a liberation that was also the age’s deficit, a certain loss of memory has occurred,” wrote Rodgers – in 2011.
I return to Age of Fracture regularly because Rodgers’ acuity accords so well with the various notions of political cycles in American history that have been around practically since the nation’s history began – stories of involvements shifting between public purpose and private interests, centralization and pluralism, each phase growing out of the contradictions of the one before, producing a zig-zag pattern.
So what might we hope for the next fifty years? We’ve done pretty well to this point. I can’t think of a better answer than “More of the same.” Multiculturalism, including the legacy of slavery, poses no challenge that Americans cannot surmount.
For a forty-minute tour of another rights revolution of the twentieth century, watch Journey across a Century of Women, Claudia Goldin’s Feldstein Lecture, delivered last week to the all-virtual Summer Institute of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Goldin, of Harvard University, is finishing a book on the subject, which will receive much attention when it appears. If you are at all curious about the strains imposed on working women by the Covid-19 pandemic, watch her lecture now.
Emmanuel Farhi, 41, of Harvard University, died last week, apparently by his own hand. It was the fourth such death of a prominent economist in a year, following those of Martin Weitzman, also of Harvard; Alan Krueger, of Princeton University; and William Sandholm, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.