This July 2nd we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The most obvious and really glaring thing about such an anniversary is the yawning gap between the promise of that day and the current “facts on the ground” concerning Black America. A history that has birthed seemingly unintelligible circumstances perhaps best typified by Detroit today where a Black “emergency manager” autocratically cuts off water supplies to tens of thousands of impoverished Black residents. Something even the United Nations has called a human rights violation.

When looking back (and forward) at this anniversary it seems like there are two basic questions to address. Did the Act make a difference? And what accounts for such a drastic divergence between formal—legal—equality and the immense inequality of today?

To deal with the first question, the current deplorable state for large swaths of Black America should not diminish the accomplishments that led to the Civil Rights Act. One would have to be extremely crass to suggest that “nothing has really changed” or to refer to the Civil Rights victories as “hollow.”

If nothing else the ascension of Chokwe Lumumba to the mayoralty should dispel such talk. But beyond that, however inadequate, just the general perception that racism “is wrong” suggests a significant shift. At the time the Civil Rights Act was signed, racists joyously wallowed in their hatred. Now even actual racists try, more often than not, to claim they are not racists.

This is a reflection of the true meaning of the Civil Rights or, as I prefer, Southern Freedom Movement. In essence this movement forced white America writ large to accept, willingly or not, the basic humanity of Black America, and to enshrine this humanity in the nation’s legal codes. Whatever else you want to say, the fact that Black Americans in their millions rose up and challenged the racism written into the DNA of the
American capitalist system, defeating not just the legal obstacles but the extra-judicial terrorism that came with it, is a tremendous accomplishment. Further it was the Southern Freedom Movement, which exposed many of capitalism’s contradictions that set in motion a broader radical upsurge that shook not only the nation but the world.

This leads to the second key point, the difference between formal and actual equality. Despite frequent confusion the basic reasoning is fairly simple to grasp. The Southern Freedom Movement took place in the context of the rising standard of living in the post-World War II United States. The general assumption was that Blacks could be “integrated” into this consensus in the same way that, say, the Irish were.

And indeed from the Great Society, to Mayor Lindsay in New York City, and foundations like Ford and Russell Sage, quite a bit of treasure was spent in pursuit of this basic goal. In particular as the so-called “Black Power” era more forcefully put the demands of the “ghetto” on the domestic policy agenda.

Then the rug was pulled out from under. The economic crisis of the 1970s recalibrated the thinking of capitalist elites the new ruling class imperatives required a frontal assault on the living standards of all working people, with Black America sent from the first floor to the basement while the mostly white-middle classes crashed down from the third.

Attempts to ameliorate the deplorable conditions birthed by racist political economy were replaced with an “official” anti-racism that focused on relatively superficial issues of representation within elite institutions, creating “progress” that was more than cosmetic, but relevant only to a tiny sliver of Black America. Hence our current juncture.

Capitalism is inherently a roller-coaster. It is unplanned, anarchic, and crisis ridden. Reforms occur within this overall context. Powerful movements and objective conditions coincide resulting in particular changes. Changing conditions often lead to set-backs if not total rollbacks of previously “won” gains.

We can, and should fight, for reforms under capitalism; there is nothing futile about lifting, however slightly, the yoke of exploitation and oppression that hangs around the necks of many. If we want lasting change we need to change not just individual policies, but the capitalist system.