A Third Wave for Civil Rights

If the United States is to be “great again”—or, truly great for the first time ever for all of its citizens—the country must admit with stark honesty to what it has been.


Published:

Jeff Chang.

Photo by Brian (B+) Ross/CC

A paperback edition of We Gon’ Be Alright, writer Jeff Chang’s collection of essays, speaks with necessary clarity on race and resegregation. The Berkeley author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University writes most often on race, pop culture, and “color-blind” America.

We Gon’ introduces the police violence that began in 2012 with Trayvon Martin and bled through Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and other victims to 2016 as the third wave of a post-civil rights era cycle. In 1965, passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act coincided with Malcolm X’s assassination and the Watts riots. The second societal response to oppression were the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a reaction to the acquittal of four police officers accused of using excessive force in the beating of Rodney King. Chang suggests that “merchants of division” like President-elect Donald Trump, the “Alt-Right,” and other operators during today’s third wave are little different from people who’ve denied for decades if not centuries that implicit bias, stereotype threat, and empathy gap are real and ongoing in America.

In elegant prose and backed by extensive research, the seven essays plus introduction provide a historical overview and Chang’s personal evaluation on racism’s deep scars. If there is a flaw to the essays, it is self-admitted perspective: Chang makes clear his stance that racism against people of color is a current, powerful threat to our society. Included in his arguments are the fears of “racial apocalypse” that has “civilizers overrun by savages” and is part of white America’s DNA from Gen. Custer to Lincoln’s assassination to the Alamo. According to Chang, segregationists and resegregationists have bandied about the terms “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” “affirmative action,” “politically correct,” and “free speech” like tennis balls—and thereby rendered them meaningless. Several essays touch on the devastating impact of repeated exposure to racist laws, words, and deeds that threaten especially the physical health, economic security, educational and vocational opportunities, psyche, and cohesive community of people of color. The origins of gentrification, institutionalized racism, nationalism, anti-immigration sentiments, and the Black Lives Matter movement come swiftly into focus in Chang’s concise, powerful writing.

But it’s not all bleak. Improbably, Chang emerges in the edition’s final essay as an optimist. Perhaps because he grew up in Hawai’i, solutions are sunny, but depend on a stiff wind to cruise. Desirous of self-identity that is not a weapon but is instead a tool that allows a person to stay open to the world and grow, Chang offers noble goals. Seek “full humanity that includes seeing others with compassion” and devise an “expansive, moral design.” Live with grace. Preserve dignity for yourself and for your neighbor.

We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang (Picador, 2016, 208 pp., $16)

 

This report appears in the January edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Jan. 18, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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