This is not 1968 all over again

Much has improved since those riots but our expectations of equality have tragically diminished.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics USA

It has proved very tempting for those who observe the protests and rioting over the appalling killing of George Floyd to compare the disturbances with the heady, rebellious days of 1968, the last time when widespread rioting broke out throughout the United States.

Princeton historian Kevin M Kruse tweeted: ‘This past week has felt like a replay of Chicago 1968 all across the nation.’ Walter Shapiro of the New Republic declared: ‘The parallel on everyone’s lips is 1968 – that wrenching year of assassination, riot, racism, war and the breakdown of the bonds that hold us together as a people.’ James Fallows made a similar point in the Atlantic, remembering 1968 but calling 2020 ‘the second-most traumatic year’.

Donald Trump has leapt on the comparison, noting that the successful Republican candidate for the 1968 presidential election, Richard Nixon, employed a law-and-order strategy. ‘I am your president of law and order’, Trump said in a speech. He has also tweeted ‘LAW & ORDER’ in all-caps to underscore the point. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, anti-Trump pundit Tom Nichols and some of Trump’s advisers predict a backlash to the chaos that will benefit Trump in November.

So how useful are the comparisons to 1968? There are superficial similarities. 1968 was, of course, like 2020, a federal election year. A deadly virus – the so-called Hong Kong flu – killed tens of thousands of people. The nation stood at a crossroads as the grand expectations of the 1960s gave way to the lower horizons of the 1970s.

For African-Americans, there are many depressing continuities. African-Americans remain near the bottom of American society in terms of wealth. Family income compared to whites has hardly changed at all since the 1950s. And they are overrepresented in the prison population by a factor of five.

Complaints about police brutality towards blacks have also been heard for more than 50 years. It is worth remembering that Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech contained the line: ‘We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.’ Today, not surprisingly, few are satisfied.

Yet the differences between the crucial year of 1968 and today far outweigh the similarities. The disturbances around the country may appear huge, but that is because we see more of them through the medium of phone cameras. It is also likely that police killings of black civilians were more prevalent back then but were seen less than today. In fact, compared to 1968, the events of the last week are minuscule. The wave of rioting occurring after the assassination of Dr King on 4 April 1968 was the greatest social unrest in the United States since the Civil War.

Many expressed disgust that Trump sent in troops to calm the situation in Washington. In 1968, President Lyndon B Johnson expressed sympathy with the anger in ghettoes. According to his press secretary, Johnson said: ‘What did you expect?… When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do?’ But despite Johnson’s expression of sympathy, he ordered 11,850 federal troops and 1,750 DC National Guardsmen on to the streets of DC to assist the hopelessly outnumbered police. Marines mounted machine guns on the steps of the Capitol while army soldiers guarded the White House. By the time the city was considered pacified on Sunday, 8 April, some 1,200 buildings had been burnt.

In Chicago, between 4 and 7 April, 11 people died, 500 were injured, and 2,150 had been arrested. Over 200 buildings were damaged in the disturbances, with damage costs running up to $10million. The south-side ghetto remained peaceful, largely because two gangs – the Blackstone Rangers and the East Side Disciples – cooperated to control their neighbourhoods. In myriad other cities affected by rioting, troops occupied the streets. In Wilmington, Delaware, the National Guard occupied the city for more than nine months.

Like the historical inaccuracies of the 1619 Project, some are simply projecting their own view of the present into history. In the Nation, Jeet Heer claims riots – or ‘uprisings’ – against police violence are a constant: ‘Race riots in America follow a clear pattern of reaction to police demonstrations of basic contempt for black citizenship… protests against police violence flared up regularly, as with the 1919 riot in Chicago and the 1943 uprising in Detroit.’

In fact, Heer inadvertently shows that African-Americans’ lives are, in some ways, better than in the past. The so-called uprising in Detroit was an uprising of white residents against blacks coming into their neighbourhood. Back then, African-American community leaders pleaded for Mayor Edward J Jeffries to call in help from national troops. In 1919 in Chicago, a black boy swimming on the ‘white side’ of a beach was stoned to death. Most of the violence was from white vigilantes towards blacks. White vigilantes hardly figure today, except in the fevered imaginations of some liberals.

In 1968, despite the Brown v Board of Education decision some 14 years earlier, most schools in the south were yet to be desegregated. Richard Nixon, taking office in 1969, desegregated more schools than the previous three presidents put together. There were also very few black policemen, construction workers or politicians back then. That has changed.

Perhaps the most dramatic differences, however, are in expectations. In the wake of the race riots in Detroit in 1967, Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes and provide policy recommendations. It placed the blame on successive federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social-service policies. It called for new jobs, new housing and an end to de facto segregation by wiping out ghettoes. In order to enact racial change, its report recommended huge government programmes to provide needed services and billions in housing programmes aimed at breaking up residential segregation. Johnson rejected the conclusions.

In contrast to 52 years ago, the notable difference today is that no one seems to have any hope that things can actually change. In place of the campaigns for structural changes, marches for massive investment and effort, we get little performances where blacks express anger and contrite whites apologise tearfully to them. No one feels that anything will change but it makes them all feel better. African-Americans will go back to their ghettos, face joblessness, drugs, poverty and a hostile police force, while whites slip back into their offices and suburbs.

Despite what the gloomy presentists will tell us, the possibility of racial equality made it worth fighting for in 1968. It is still worth fighting for, but the morality plays that pass for activism today must first give way to much bigger thinking.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland.

Picture by: Getty.

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nick hunt

9th June 2020 at 7:12 pm

Kevin Yuill neglects to mention key elements in this story. First, the huge rise in fatherlessness among black communities, now reaching 80%, and a major factor in creating lawless sons and much higher rates of crime and violence. Also a serious problem is black bigotry against studious black kids who are bullied for emulating white success. Then there is the dominant context or micro-culture generating these problems, plus others such as the industrial scale abuse against underage black girls, most of whom allegedly experience sexual abuse. Also missing is any discussion of the biggest and most impoverished group in the USA today, poor whites. They also don’t appear much in the crucial FBI statistics proving how 7% of the US population produces hugely disproportionate levels of crime and homicide. But those statistics are missing here (and also being deleted from various social media platforms). I guess if Yuill a) knew and discussed all these on his courses he would b) risk losing his job. Of course, Yuill might be black, in which case he would be more likely to keep his job. And that would be more evidence to show which race enjoys systemic privilege today, and which is oppressed.

Gordon T͟Hə Gopher

9th June 2020 at 11:50 am

Why do you call them ‘African’ American?

They’re American. And like most Americans, I doubt they’ve ever been outside America and don’t know where Africa is on a map.

Jonathan Palmer

9th June 2020 at 11:11 am

For African-Americans, there are many depressing continuities. African-Americans remain near the bottom of American society in terms of wealth…. I don’t want top demonise African -Americans but why is it that so many new migrant groups to the States over the last 50 years have overtaken them.
I consider that wanton brutality against the deprived of society matters and that we should be vigilant. That said we do no favours by indulging a community and turning it to permanent victimhood.

Mark Houghton

9th June 2020 at 3:25 pm

” I don’t want top demonise African -Americans but why is it that so many new migrant groups to the States over the last 50 years have overtaken them.” – because African Americans have made some truly awful choices and poor choices lead to poor outcomes. But rather than look in the mirror and face up to that they would rather blame the bogeyman of ‘systemic racism’ in much the same way that feminists blame ‘the patriarchy’.

Mor Vir

9th June 2020 at 9:55 am

This should be interesting. Rhodes was another ideological racist and imperialist, who thought that the ethnic British were a superior race and that they had a destiny to conquer and to colonise the world. A lot of N azi thinking originated in the Britain and its Empire, and people are becoming more aware of that.

> After police stood by and watched the statue being toppled in Bristol, the focus will shift on Tuesday to Oxford, where hundreds of students and residents are expected to attend a protest calling for the removal of Oxford University’s statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes.

Mor Vir

9th June 2020 at 10:56 am

Rhodes was an active and influential British imperialist, who was motivated by ideas of racial supremacy, lebensraum (conquering living space for the racial group), and a global conquest and domination of the world in a racial empire, the British Empire.

It is hardly surprising that people question whether he should continue to occupy a place of honour in the public square. The British capitalist state has shifted its ideology to a post-imperialist, anti-r acist ideology, to reflect the shift in the economic base with the loss of the Empire.

> I then asked myself how could I [serve my country,] and after reviewing the various methods, I have felt that at the present day we are actually limiting our children and perhaps bringing into the world half the human beings we might owing to the lack of country for them to inhabit, that if we had retained America there would at this moment be millions more of English living.

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings, what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence…

The idea gleaming and dancing before ones eyes like a will-of-the-wisp at last frames itself into a plan. Why should we not form a secret society with but one object the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule, for the recovery of the United States, for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire…

Eric Praline

9th June 2020 at 12:36 pm

I don’t suppose that’s specifically why he is honoured with a statue. Even if he is, is a mob the right way to decide which statues we have? Granted, the original reasons are murky and probably undemocratic but don’t think we should go down that road.

Mor Vir

9th June 2020 at 2:50 pm

The protest by Rhodes Must Fall is a catalyst for local and university authorities to discuss the matter. You can follow the live coverage here, to see what is going on.

nick hunt

9th June 2020 at 7:24 pm

Leftists today see themselves as morally and intellectually superior to non-leftists, and spend their time denigrating and sneering at those inferior to themselves. It’s hard to identify a greater source of bigotry, elitism and supremacism in the West today, and your posts invariably ooze anti-British bigotry. Unless of course you also criticise today’s real racism and supremacism, such as Islamism, the Chinese persecution of Muslims and Tibetans. or the slow genocide of South African whites. Please link to posts showing you don’t only hate past injustices by the most anti-racist nations in the world today. Then we might take this post seriously, and you might convince someone.

Mor Vir

9th June 2020 at 10:11 pm

It has got nothing to do with leftists, the British state itself is anti-r acist, just as it used to be r acist. Whatever allows it to make money. Your attempt to personalise the discussion does not interest me. The ‘British’ people are not a single lump, only in your imagination.

Mor Vir

9th June 2020 at 10:36 pm

You may wish to be loyal to the British state but it does not want you. You are an ideological throwback that it would happily see in jail if you cross the line.

I am neither left nor right, the polarity and partisanship is due to a general lack of insight. Nor am I hostile to any group.

Things interest me for their own sake.

Mark Houghton

9th June 2020 at 9:05 am

“Complaints about police brutality towards blacks have also been heard for more than 50 years.” – ah yes, but prove to me that the police are deliberately treating black people with brutality TODAY.
Do you seriously imagine the black ‘community’ will own up to their own mistakes? – massive rates of children in one parent households (awful life outcomes), massive rates of black on black violence, what seems to be a cultural dislike of education.

Eric Praline

9th June 2020 at 8:32 am

“the morality plays that pass for activism today must first give way to much bigger thinking”

Think that sums it up rather well. The BLM types don’t seem to have a single coherent idea between them, they just like a bit of a scuffle and to shout some slogans.

Mind you, they’ve encouraged Sadiq Khan to announce a review of statues in London, revolutionary stuff. They must be proud.

JohnB Smith

9th June 2020 at 7:24 am

I am making a good pay from home 1500 Buckets/week, that is brilliant, beneath a
year agone i used to be unemployed amid a monstrous economy. I pass on God consistently i used to be investedy these bearings, and at present, I should pay it forward and impart it to everyone, Go on……

Gordon T͟Hə Gopher

9th June 2020 at 11:57 am

We don’t get paid in buckets these days since they invented this thing called money.

Eric Praline

9th June 2020 at 1:50 pm

You don’t get paid in buckets?

Lucky bastard.

Grant Melville

9th June 2020 at 4:01 pm

Ah, it all depends on what the buckets are filled with. Paper money would be nice.

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