In a recent conversation with some of the students in my Race and Law class, I encountered a real sense of discouragement and disappointment and more than a little despair following the election. To begin class, I gave them the opportunity to share how they were feeling and what they were thinking. Some students expressed a range of concerns, like who will be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, and what does the election mean for the protection of civil rights for people of color. Others voiced concerns about what that appointment would mean for women’s rights and the safety of religious minorities. One student talked about how Muslims have been targeted and mosques have been vandalized since President-elect Trump began his campaign, and how hate crimes have followed the election results.
I acknowledged that these were important concerns that we should be thinking about and to which we should be paying attention, but I didn’t allow them to dwell on their disappointment. Instead, I told them they were being empowered through their legal education and that democracy is not really about what happens on election night but what happens afterward. As I mentioned in prior columns, democracy is about how you exercise your freedom of speech and right of association. It is about how you use the legal system and the opportunities and resources you have available to bring about positive change.
One of the most important features of American democracy is our ability to organize, mobilize and call for change. It is our ability to openly challenge and disagree with decisions made by our government and to create organizations to protect and preserve the rights and wellbeing of racial, religious and sexual minorities, as well as women, the disabled, workers, the poor and others. The protections that African-American women and men have today in education and employment and in voting and in housing and in banking, for example, are far from complete and fully realized, but they exceed what our parents had because of the work they did for us. When we examine how these rights arose and what life was like for those before us who lived without them, we should pause and ask ourselves who brought them about and what sacrifices they made.
Sadly, I encounter much more lament about the election than willingness to work to secure the protections for the next generation. Bringing about positive change may be more challenging today than it was a few days ago, but will it really be more difficult than overturning the Jim Crow laws and practices of the South and the North? Will it really be more difficult than gaining women’s suffrage? Will it really be more difficult than bringing an end to more than two centuries of slavery?
Are those of us concerned about civil rights today at a greater disadvantage then Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune, Thurgood Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, Martin Luther King Junior and Ella Baker? What about Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Wilma Mankiller or Mitch Snyder? I think not, and yet, despite even more overwhelming odds than we might imagine, they achieved monumental successes through their hard work, ceaseless dedication and sacrifices to make America a better place for all of us than it was for them.
Today our greatest challenge is not a Trump presidency. It’s hopelessness. It’s despair. It’s a feeling of powerlessness by some and apathy and self-absorption by others. Too many of us take great comfort in complaining but devote no attention to organizing, mobilizing or strategizing to force change. So what should we do? I say, “Do more of the same.” Not more of the same in terms of gridlock in Washington or a state government that is unresponsive to the needs of people of color, sexual minorities, the poor and others here in Indiana. We need more of the same sacrifices, meetings, rallies, marches, boycotts, lawsuits, mass meetings, organizing and protests that led to the civil rights acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968; more of the same engagement that secured the Nineteenth Amendment and created a 40-hour work week, overtime and worker’s compensation; more of the same education that fueled the Black Power and Chicano movements of the 1960s, and the LGBT rights and the Japanese reparations movement of the 1980s.
If we are not willing today to match the efforts of our forerunners who had fewer resources, fewer freedoms, fewer opportunities and more threats and open hostility than we do, then we can only expect more of the same inequality and injustice, not only for us but for those who come after us.
Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at Indiana University.