Protest against racism in Miami, Florida, on June 8, 2020. Photo credit: Pix_Arena / Shutterstock.com.
When Dinah Washington recorded “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” in 1959, the blues diva managed to imbue the Tin Pan Alley lyrics with a kind of haunted hopefulness, the same kind of soulful yearning that would reappear a few years later in Sam Cooke’s monumental ode to the civil rights movement, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
A change did come — but massive resistance followed. Conservative Republicans tried to reverse some of the gains made by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nationwide, efforts resumed to suppress the Black vote. More Black men than ever before were imprisoned in the decades that follow. Throughout cities and towns in America, heavily armed police forces were deployed to pacify Black neighborhoods, leading to a spike in the number of Black people murdered by police.
What a difference May 25, 2020 made. That was the day that George Floyd was choked to death by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
The result was an explosion of protest, first locally, then nationally, and eventually developing into the largest protest movement in the history of the United States.
Private citizens and public figures now engage in contentious rhetoric about Confederate monuments. Statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and others who fought for the right to own slaves have been removed or destroyed. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. Many corporations are suddenly recognizing Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery, as an official holiday.
It goes on. Aunt Jemima’s pancakes and Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, Uncle Ben’s rice. Cream of Wheat, and the last remaining Sambo’s restaurant in Santa Barbara (the name was part of a chain of established in 1957) — all brands that trafficked in images of docile Black servants all too willing to adhere to the psychologically regressive shackles of white servitude — conceded to common sense and decency by dropping names and mascots that originated in an era when racially bigoted portrayals were acceptable for commercial purposes.
For now, momentum appears to be on the side of critics who have argued — oftentimes for decades — that such antiquated relics have been carelessly and callously employed, and that corporations were all too willing to play to the trope of happy-go-lucky, elemental, not quite fully human Black people to make a buck. Indeed, complaints from civil rights organizations, activists groups, academics, and other progressive segments of society have long made passionate and eloquent arguments decrying the use and promotion of such retrograde imagery. Rather than take the time to listen to such critiques, the majority of businesses ignored them and often refused to change their marketing strategies, no doubt secure in their knowledge they were under no pressure to do so. Now they are talking. Now they are taking credit for suddenly doing what they should have done a long time ago.
The senseless murders of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others too numerous to list here, are leaving corporations and institutions desperately seeking advice in an effort to be perceived as being “woke” and legitimate ambassadors for social justice. Without being too cynical, it is highly unlikely that a number of these previously clueless corporate executives suddenly experienced a “road to Damascus” conversion, “turned a corner,” and suddenly “saw the light.” Rather, the “vision” they saw was the pressure of a growing, ever-shifting mood nationwide as well as internationally that rejected racism in all its forms.
While I am well aware of the power and importance of symbols, I also know that symbolic messages alone are not enough. We cannot lose sight of the importance of substance. Various political, social, and cultural pockets of the nation have been deeply immersed in passionate (for some, opportunistic) debates about keeping flags, defunding police departments, canceling productions of celebrities who have engaged in what is said to be racist behavior, and deciding whether anti-racist books should be required reading on college campuses, or how we should view movies considered “classics” but still riven with troublesome racist tropes like Birth of a Nation and Gone With The Wind.
For the record, I agree with those who believe that the Confederate flag and statues of racist generals, politicians, and other bigoted human beings with racist pasts should not be displayed on statehouse grounds, in downtown squares, or in other public venues. Rather, put such symbols in public museums where they belong. Yes, supporters of the flag have argued robustly that the flag is merely a part of their heritage, a point of pride and nothing more. My response to such misguided thinking is that these people need to better understand their American history. There was and is nothing prideful for the millions of people of African descent who were attacked, shackled, and lashed down by a flag that symbolized nothing more than denigration, degradation, and dehumanization.
And of course, it is unquestionably commendable that Quaker Oats and Mars, Inc., are retiring the aunt and uncle labels and other unseemly images from their products. Indeed, Jemima’s pancakes, Ben’s rice, and Butterworth’s syrup absent photos of people of any race or ethnicity will be fine, thank you!
But it is not enough. We need a hard and sustained look at the impact of systemic racism. We cannot get sidetracked from achieving substantive victories by easy ones over symbolic gestures. For example, some of the goals we should be focused on are:
- Developing a Marshall plan for our inner cities and rural areas
- Establishing set-asides for minority businesses
- Implementing aggressive affirmative action programs
- Sponsoring paid internship programs, creating entry-level positions, and offering advanced job opportunities at all levels for Black and brown Americans
- Seriously considering the issue of reparations
- Forgiving student loans and offering free college education
- Assisting first-time home-buyer programs
- Mandatory education programs on the history of Black Americans and Indigenous people
Wall Street, law firms, the music industry, Hollywood, political organizations, and other corporations should be on the front line of devising such opportunities. If not, they should be held to account.
America faces numerous issues that require immediate attention. But addressing the centuries of racial injustice in the United States is just as important as combating the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to finally and effectively address economic marginalization that plagues too many of our nation’s communities of color. This must be an ongoing and permanent goal of corporate America and everyone of good will. Period.
Historian, public speaker, and cultural critic Elwood Watson, PhD, is a professor at East Tennessee State University and author of the recent book Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America.