Some years ago, I was working on the overhire crew for a touring event gig in Chicago. One of the touring crew was an older guy who used to be a rock roadie. I got assigned to work with him and so we got to talking.
He mostly talked about his experiences of the Civil Rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and ’60s. He was in high school and college at the time, and he participated in the protests and sit-ins. He fought hard for equal rights. It remains a defining experience of his life.
This guy was raised by middle class white Republican parents in a solid middle class white Republican neighborhood. According to him, many of his fellows stood and protested with him in support of the Civil Rights movement. They supported equal rights because they believed in the importance of individual merit. A person’s success or failure in life should be determined by their own abilities and effort.
Systemic inequality is anathema to the doctrine of individual merit. If the system assigns unearned advantages or disadvantages to people, it renders individual ability and effort largely meaningless. They all wanted an equal playing field where individuals could prove themselves.
While this guy remained committed to continuing civil rights efforts over the years, he watched most of his fellows change their stance as they all grew older, many to the point where they now actively oppose current civil rights movements. He told me he was trying hard to understand how that happened.
These are his own opinions, from his personal experiences and his own thought process. He confessed that he has no idea if he really understands any of this. But given everything going on right now, I keep thinking about what he told me.
In his view, there has been an evolution in the decades between then and now: belief in individual merit became a belief in exceptionalism which became naked selfishness and the valorization of greed. “I got mine, I deserve it, screw you.”
It’s a story as old as time.
He sees a lot of people his age who cling to a belief that they fixed the problem back in the ’50s and ’60s so there can’t still be a problem today. They worked so hard, poured so much effort and heart and soul into it back then—they just can’t accept that it wasn’t enough.
If you sincerely believe that equal rights were achieved 50 years ago—if you’re convinced that bigotry, racism, and discrimination are no longer a problem in this country—how do you make sense of people today who claim bigotry, racism, and discrimination?
“They must be mistaken. Spoiled, sensitive cry-babies for whom equality isn’t enough. What they really want is preferential treatment.”
Yes, the efforts of the 20th century Civil Rights movement in the United States made things better. But it wasn’t enough and we still have deeply systemic inequalities at all levels of our society. Recent events have made it abundantly clear that overt racism and sexism, xenophobia and homo-transphobia are very much alive and well.
He was bothered by the number of people he knew, people who had protested alongside him back in the Civil Rights era, who today voice frustration that minorities don’t express enough gratitude for everything middle class whites did for them. “We worked so hard on their behalf, we were magnanimous enough to support their cause, and they clearly don’t appreciate it!”
Of course, the kind of gratitude they expect is deference. What they really mean is that minorities haven’t been deferential enough.
Of course, if you expect deference as your reward for supporting equal rights, then you never truly supported equal rights.
The thing is, this guy was certain that his fellows sincerely did support equal rights back in their youth. This was the most difficult aspect for him to wrap his head around:
Many of his middle class white fellows who fought for civil rights in their youth were still racist. Not all of them consciously or overtly, but their entire experience of the world reinforced fundamentally racist assumptions.
Here’s what took him the longest to understand: Many of his fellows took it for granted that they would still be on top even after the playing field was leveled. In a contest of true individual merit, they assumed they would prove to be the most meritorious. It was self-evident to them that this was how the world worked.
It’s easy to be magnanimous when you’re certain you’re going to win.
To put it differently: It’s one thing to recognize that minorities are discriminated against in the work force; it’s something different to realize that you might actually have to compete against a black guy for a job and you could lose. It’s one thing to recognize that redlining is unfair and unethical; it’s something else to welcome a Hispanic family as your next door neighbor. Or that a brown-skinned kid whose parents have a funny accent might beat out your all-American child for valedictorian and get into a better college.
NIMBY-ism. A story as old as time.
The Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s resulted in laws and policies which made significant progress in attempting to correct systemic inequality. And all of a sudden, middle class white America realized its position of power wasn’t nearly as secure as we always assumed.
If you’re absolutely certain you understand how the world is supposed to work, how do you make sense of it when things don’t turn out the way you expected?
It’s extremely difficult for people to admit they might be wrong. It’s more likely that people will believe something is interfering, messing up how the world is supposed to be.
A person believes they’re the most meritorious—but then they don’t do as well in life as they expected. A person believes that these other people are intrinsically less meritorious—but then these other people do better than expected.
It doesn’t make sense. That’s not how the world is supposed to work. So you can either admit you were wrong about how the world is, that you overestimated your own merit and underestimated other people. Or you can convince yourself that these other people must be cheating.
And so a lot of this guy’s fellows now point to equal rights efforts and say, “That’s not equality, that’s preferential treatment.” This way, they get to keep their belief in their own individual merit.
Thus, a belief in individual merit becomes exceptionalism.
I don’t know. This is all anecdotal—a limited view from one guy’s perspective. I have no idea if he was right about any of it. He was as confused by all of this as anyone. But he was so committed, so hurt and confounded by how so many of his fellows changed over time. I can’t stop thinking about what he said to me that day. It stuck with me.