Recently Black Lives Matter organizers and Hillary Clinton came together in a much-televised meeting to discuss the continuing impact of racism on the lives of African Americans. The Black Lives Matter organizers pushed Clinton to answer what had changed in her heart and how she planned to change the hearts of Americans who might continue to harbor conscious or unconscious ill will towards African Americans. These organizers pointedly sought an explanation of how Clinton’s views may have evolved from when she previously spoke glowingly of the policies her husband ushered in, so-called reforms, which have ravaged many African American lives. Clinton’s response was that she did not think she could change hearts but she could change laws, systems and policies that would impact the distribution of resources. The Black Lives Matter protesters received some criticism for both their desire for Hillary Clinton to answer this question and their dissatisfaction with what many viewed as her sensible approach to addressing the issue.
But were the Black Lives Matter activists misguided in their focus?
After watching the excerpts from this meeting, I started thinking about my own impression of attempts to create racial change through laws, systems and/or policies. You see, throughout my life when I have watched depictions of integration or attempts to integrate, rather than primarily focusing on the heroism of the African American or African Americans who traversed angry mobs to confront the inequity of their denial of civil rights, my eye has always been drawn to the angry mob. I wondered about the individual members of those crowds, chanting the word “nigger” at school children, or writing it on school walls, or who held signs that read, “Race Mixing is Communism,” “Close Mixed Schools”, “We Wont Go to School with Negroes” and much worse. These protesters’ opposition to integration was so strong that in some places, such as Prince Edwards County in Virginia, rather than integrate the schools they were closed down. These protesters established a foundation that replaced the closed public school with private all-white schools that were funded by tuition and tax credits from the state. Similarly, once integration became the law of the land, whites stopped using public swimming pools and decreased funding for their upkeep, which ultimately lead to their closure. These individuals’ unchanged hearts, combined with diabolical creativity and the support of sympathetic government officials, enabled them to circumvent new laws that purportedly changed the distribution of resources. Ultimately, their efforts succeeded in retaining the status quo of segregation. We should not underestimate the power of an unchanged heart on the implementation of a law, system or policy.
Again, when I look at images from the civil rights era and the incredibly brave African Americans who led the charge of integration, I wonder about the white participants in those race protests. Where did those protesters go after the events? Did they work in the government agencies now charged with new less-discriminatory orders? Who are they today? Have their hearts changed and, if so, how? If their hearts have not changed, how has that slowed the progress toward a less racist society?