The Republican National Committee took some aggressive criticism for a tweet the political group sent out on the 58th anniversary of civil rights icon Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus. The original tweet lauded Parks for her work "ending racism," which was rightly denounced as an absurd conclusion about the current state of race relations in America. The committee listened and amended its tweet to say Parks should be remembered for her role in the fight to end racism.
The RNC should be cut a little slack here, in that the world of Twitterdom tends to lead people to oversimplify in the interests of keeping things well, simple, and short enough to fit in those mini-Haiku boxes. It's actually a good lesson in how Twitter is not the appropriate forum to discuss racism. (It's much better suited to such observations as "Hey! Did you see that 109-yard return in the Auburn-Alabama game?") But the tweets do expose a disconnect in the American public that does warrant fuller examination – whether we really have reached a state of near-racial equality.
We haven't, not by a long shot. African-Americans still earn less than whites, and are more likely to be incarcerated or racially profiled. And if you think no one would harbor resentment or hatred towards blacks – or at least would to have the bad judgment to make it public – then just read the Internet. You'll find an appalling series of comments and images depicting, for example, the leader of the free world as a monkey. Most likely, there aren't too many more racists than there were 15 or 20 years ago. It's just that the anonymity and accessibility of the Internet has given racists (and cowards who won't sign their names to their heinous comments) more opportunity to be heard.
But there's a deeper problem here, one on which people have made the erroneous conclusion that if we have a mixed-race president, that must mean "mission accomplished." President Obama's election (and more importantly, his re-election) certainly represents an historic marker in race relations, but it hardly qualifies as proof that there is no racism in America anymore. If anything, his election has enraged and emboldened the nations' racist elements (which extend not only to those who demanded that Obama come out of the White House with his hands up, like a street criminal, but also to those who continue to insist that Obama is not really American, or somehow "other").
Trayvon Martin's shooting was a stark example of the disconnect. There was Martin, an unarmed, African-American teenage boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt – which some people bizarrely thought was in and of itself suspicious or provocative – and George Zimmerman, who presumed the teenager to be a criminal, got out of his car and shot Martin dead in an ensuing scuffle. According the Gallup, 54 percent of whites thought the not guilty verdict was correct. Seven percent of African-Americans felt the same way.
That's a huge gap, and it's due to differing experiences. Blacks – even those who are not in hoodies, or who are elected officials – find themselves followed by police in their cars or shadowed in department stores (as both Obama and former RNC chief Michael Steele have discussed). If you're white, and don't have that experience, it's tempting to look at Obama's election or other historical markers and presume we've solved the problem. Not even close. The same Gallup poll asked American if they thought the criminal justice system was biased against African-Americans. A fourth of whites said yes; 68 percent of blacks saw bias.
Rosa Parks couldn't end racism. Neither could the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Obama. They are merely signs of pushback and progress. And as often happens when there is a breakthrough on civil rights (or women's rights, for that matter), there is often a backlash. We still have a long, long way to go.