Not quite the post racial age

Captured by Bill Hudson, and featured by AP, this photo has become an iconic image of the Civil Rights Movement. But the history behind it is a bit more complicated.

Dustin White

Yesterday, I read an article called “Are you sure you’re not racist?,” that had been shared (my apologies, I can’t recall who had shared it). It was a fascinating article, and got me thinking.

After the Civil Rights movement, it seems that many people thought that the race issue was over. Well, at least some people. That view has continued through to today. Instead of talking about racism, euphemisms or glossing over the facts are used. It is something hidden beneath the surface, either by poor history, or by ignoring the topic.

Part of this is because of the media, and depending on what they want to further, the narrative changes. In this picture, which has become an iconic image of the Civil Rights movement, the initial story may appear as if an African American man is the victim of purposeful police brutality through the use of a dog. The truth is much more complicated.

Walter Gadsen is the man in the photo. He was 15 years old at the time of the photo. The police officer was R.E. Middleton. Both agreed that the narrative that was spread through the United States, the story told by the photo, simply wasn’t true.

Gadsen had nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement. In later interviews, he would go as far as to claim that it did nothing for him or his family. He was neither impressed with the photo, or the later sculpture inspired by the image. It was a fake narrative, which just caused problems for him.

The reason for that is because Gadsen was present simply to watch the protest. He wanted nothing to do with it, and was even a bit resentful that Martin Luther King Jr. started it. He wasn’t a foot soldier in the movement, just a teenager, who according to Gadsen, was running with the wrong crowd, and decided to skip school that day.

It would be by accident that Gadsen and Middleton would meet, and according to both parties, it seemed to be more of a surprise than anything. Trying to avoid the protestors, Gadsen had sought to rejoin the spectators, and accidentally found himself among the police. He would bump into Middleton, and the iconic image would be captured.

At the moment in which the photo was taken, a complicated set of motions were occurring. Startled by the dog, Gadsen reflexively kneed the dog in the chest, while Middleton attempted to restrain the dog, and in the process, both men grabbed onto each other out of surprise as well as support.

That’s not to say that police brutality didn’t happen that day, but just that the iconic photo related a story that was very different. Gadsen’s major problem with the incident is that his parents would see it in the next day’s newspaper, and know that he was skipping school. Yet, both individuals would be plagued by the photo for the rest of their lives.

The image is nonetheless powerful, but as is often the case, the truth is much more complicated than it may appear. Another great example of this is the topic of segregation.

In 1954, the landmark case Brown vs the Board of Education was decided. The Supreme Court declared that the establishment of separate schools for black and white children was unconstitutional. For many, it seemed like a right step forward, but in practice, it caused even more problems.

The motivation for the case wasn’t that black schools were necessarily worse, but instead, it was the principal of the matter. It was the fact that governmentally funded public schools had the right to deny enrollment based on the color of the students skin. That wasn’t how the court saw it though.

For the Supreme Court, the segregation of public schools had “a detrimental effect upon the colored children.” The effect they saw was that it had a “tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children….” Yet desegregation never produced the leaps and bounds that were predicted for black students. Instead, in many cases, it led to problems.

With the move towards integration, dozens of schools would close. Specifically, it was the former black schools the closed their doors, and with that closing, tens of thousands of black teachers would lose their jobs. The situation really has never recovered.

The firings were devastating, as teaching was one of the few professions available to educated African Americans. Their future options were very limited. And the firings would continue, even though many of the black teachers were better qualified then their white counterparts.

For the students, the black education tradition would nearly be destroyed. Over the more than half century since the case was decided, studies continue to reveal that black students do not receive the same advantages as their white counterparts. Part of that has to do with the lack of black teachers, as well as an institutional racism that has seeped into the system.

Part of the issue can be explained by moral self-licensing. A 2009 study demonstrated that individuals who were given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama were more likely to express views that favored whites over blacks. Simply, the effect made people feel that if they demonstrated that they weren’t bias, it gave them licensing to express prejudicial views.

Because many view us as living in a post racial age, or because we feel as if we have already demonstrated that we aren’t racist, future racism becomes justified. How can it be racism if we’ve already shown we aren’t racist?

Possibly the largest issue though is that the topic of racism is often seen as off limits. Instead of having an open discussion, we spend more time trying to figure out the correct terms to use, or how to properly label others. We refuse to acknowledge that racism continues to exist, and instead of examining it, we use euphemisms, and gloss over history.