Newton’s Third Law states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Perhaps this principle applies equally to social progress and the enlargement of freedom, inclusion, and equality in the United States of America. Our history is littered with instances of intense and vitriolic backlash in response to progressive change.
Ending Chattel Slavery:
With President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the official system of chattel slavery ended in America. Notably, the Amendment prohibited slavery unless it was “a punishment for crime.” In addition to fighting a civil war to prevent the dismantling of the chattel slavery system, southern states relied on the exception in the Amendment and began enacting laws, known as “Black Codes,” which restricted the African-American population and ensured they existed as a labor force in the South. The result of violating these laws was often forced labor. Reconstruction after the Civil War ended the Black Codes, but they eventually developed into the Jim Crow laws of the South.
Jim Crow Laws:
During Reconstruction, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified to provide equal protection and the right to vote for the African-American community. In response to the Reconstruction Amendments, southern states began enacting legislation that significantly impacted the liberties of Blacks in America. These laws are referred to as Jim Crow laws. Policies such as segregation, literacy tests, and poll taxes were used to circumvent the broad grants of freedom found in the Reconstruction Amendments. These policies remained in effect until the 1960s.
During the 19th and early 20th Century, the women’s suffrage movement resulted in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. After a proposal to give women the right to vote in Massachusetts was introduced, the anti-suffrage movement sprung up. Yet, even after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, the anti-suffrage movement did not disappear. Rather, it became an organized political movement that opposed the expansion of social welfare programs and created a culture of hostility towards progressive female activists. The movement persisted throughout the 1920s and eventually disappeared.
The Civil Rights Movement:
Recognizing the unfulfilled promises of the Reconstruction Amendments, the Civil Rights Movement arose during the 1950s. The Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to fulfill the guarantees found in the Fifteenth Amendment. The murder and destruction carried out to prevent this progress is well documented. Men, women, and children were jailed, beat, shot, lynched, and bombed. Americans were willing to murder our fellow citizens rather than see their way of life change. In the decades following the passage of these laws, we have seen policies such as the “war on drugs,” “stop-and-frisk,” and “mandatory minimums” applied to ensure that minority communities disproportionately fill the prison system—often losing the right to vote in the process. Eventually the Supreme Court removed the teeth of the Voting Rights Act—opening the doors for various laws making voting more difficult rather than easier. We have also seen a wave of “re-segregation” in schools staring in the 1980s.
In 1973, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution protected a woman’s decision to have an abortion. Following this decision, various states have enacted a plethora of legislation regulating or limiting a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion in America.
The Arc Bends Toward Justice:
It would seem, then, that time and time again, with every reform effort in the direction of more rights, more inclusion, or more equality, there is an equal and opposite reactionary and/or resistance movement that tries to halt progress and revert backwards. Progress is a slow process. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
The nation is finishing eight years under the leadership of the country’s first African-American president. For the first time in our country’s history, children of color could look to that office and believe that it was possible for them to enter that role. For the first time in the nation’s history, a woman was nominated by a major party to be President of the United States. For the first time in the nation’s history, gays and lesbians throughout the nation could get married or serve openly in the military. Groups that have been historically discriminated against saw doors opening for them.
Then, on November 8th, Americans watched as Donald Trump was elected to be the next President. Some celebrated. Some mourned. Many wondered “how” he defied all of the predictions and beat the odds. How did such a candidate succeed in 2016? Perhaps the answer is that the victory of a candidate who has a history of lying, fraud, xenophobia, racism, misogyny (see also here), targeting people based on religion, inciting violence, and claiming the nation’s first African-American president was not a citizen, or who has made statements endorsing sexual assault and been accused of inappropriate sexual conduct, is part of the ebb and flow of American social progress. The force of the social change that has occurred over the last eight years is being met with an equal and opposite force in the other direction. Perhaps this was to be expected.
He obviously tapped into something that—unfortunately—appealed to a large portion of our fellow Americans. This is not to say that all of his voters consciously endorse the controversial things he has said and done. It is also not to say that his supporters do not endorse these offensive positions or actions—after all, they did vote for him with full knowledge of who he is and the campaign that he ran. Some just don’t care. But even those supporters who attempt to rationalize their vote for him based non-offensive reasons—he’s not a politician, his stance on trade, the Supreme Court, he’s the lesser of two evils—may very well be subconsciously reacting to the changes happening to the America they grew up in.
Our country is slow to change; it fights change tooth and nail. The nation is changing, but for certain portions of the country, this change is a threat. Perhaps this means that proponents of equality, inclusion, and progress are being effective? That would be the optimistic stance. The more pessimistic view is that a significant portion of our fellow citizens truly and consciously approve of the things Donald Trump has said, done, promised to do, or brought to the surface. It is not unfathomable (see also here, here, here, and here). I will let readers come to their own conclusion.
But, the trend in American history seems to be two steps forward followed by one step back. If this election is just the natural pushback to progress that America has historically experienced—then perhaps we should expect it to be followed by two steps forward. So how can we help?
Stay In The Fight:
The role of civil liberties and civil rights advocates in the interim is to ensure that the step backwards does not go too far back—or prevent it if possible. If Trump tries to implement the extreme proposals he has made during the campaign, we must be prepared to defend those who will be effected and hold him accountable. We must stay in the fight and begin preparing to achieve the next steps forward. With hope, the things that Trump has displayed this election will go the way of chattel slavery—a historical embarrassment, an anti-precedent.
We cannot quit. We cannot concede. We cannot appease. We have to keep moving forward. We can and we will. The arc is long, but we know which way it bends.
(photo credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore)