On November 27, 1963, two days after JFK's burial, the thirty-sixth president of the United States buried any lingering global fears that civil rights legislation had died with Kennedy. "No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long," declared Lyndon Baines Johnson to Congress. Civil rights had hardly topped Kennedy's agenda, but activists and diplomats felt relieved.
On March 26, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X came to watch the debate over the civil rights bill, meeting for the first and only known time at the US Capitol. Malcolm had recently been pushed out of the corrupted Nation of Islam. When he left Washington, he started warning American racists of the "ballot or the bullet." At a church in Detroit on April 12, 1964, Malcolm offered his plan for the ballot instead of the bullet: going before the United Nations to charge the United States with violating the human rights of African Americans. "Now you tell me how can the plight of everybody on this Earth reach the halls of the United Nations," Malcolm said, his voice rising, "and you have twenty-two million Afro-Americans whose churches are being bombed, whose little girls are being murdered, whose leaders are being shot down in broad daylight!" And America still had "the audacity or the nerve to stand up and represent himself as the leader of the free world . . . with the blood of your and mine mothers and fathers on his hands -- with the blood dripping down his jaws like a bloody-jawed wolf."
The day after the Detroit speech, Malcolm, who was Muslim, boarded a plane and embarked on his obligatory hajj to Mecca. After a lifetime in the theater of American racism that began with the lynching of his father, Malcolm X on this trip saw for the first time "all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans," interacting as equals. The experience changed him. "The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks," he said. From then on, he took on the racist wolves and devils, no matter their skin color. Though American media outlets reported his change, the narrative of Malcolm X as hating White people endured.
Malcolm returned to the States on May 21 in the middle of the longest filibuster in the Senate's history -- fifty-seven days. The senators who drove the filibuster were trying to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Behind the scenes, supporters of the act agreed on outlawing future discrimination, but disagreed on what to do about past discrimination. Antiracists requested that the act's fair employment provisions eliminate the established seniority rights of White workers. Assimilationists balked at the idea, while segregationists tried to make the request into a wedge issue. Segregationists knew White Americans were commonly refusing to acknowledge the accumulated gains of past discrimination -- and nothing signified those gains in the labor market better than seniority. But the bill's powerful assimilationist backers were adamant that it would not affect White seniority. "We don't think that one form of injustice can be corrected or should be corrected by creating another," AFL-CIO lawyer Thomas E. Harris said. Equating measures that healed inequities with measures that created inequities? It was as ridiculous as equating the harmful crime with the harmful punishment.
Harris believed that taking away Whites' seniority "would be unjust to the white workers" who had been building seniority in their jobs for many years. However, not to do so would be unjust to the Negro workers who had been discriminated against for just as long. Not tackling the seniority question (and past discrimination) would be "akin to asking the Negro to enter the 100-yard dash forty yards behind the starting line," argued the general counsel for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Carl Rachlin. But that was what the writers of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were largely asking the Negro to do. And when the Negro lost the dashes and the racial disparities persisted, racists could blame the supposed slowness of the Negro, not the head-starts of accumulated White privilege.
And so, as much as the Civil Rights Act served to erect a dam against Jim Crow policies, it also opened the floodgates for new racist ideas to pour in, including the most racist idea to date: it was an idea that ignored the White head-start, presumed that discrimination had been eliminated, presumed that equal opportunity had taken over, and figured that since Blacks were still losing the race, the racial disparities and their continued losses must be their fault. Black people must be inferior, and equalizing policies -- like eliminating or reducing White seniority, or instituting affirmative action policies -- would be unjust and ineffective. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 managed to bring on racial progress and progression of racism at the same time.
The most transformative verbiage of the 1964 act was the wording that legislated against clear and obvious "intention to discriminate," such as southern "Whites only" public policies. But what about those northern discriminators with private policies that had long kept Blacks out? What about those who were still blockbusting and segregating northern cities, and still creating, maintaining, and increasing racial inequities in wealth, housing, and education? If the northern backers of the act defined policies as racist by their public outcomes instead of their public intent, then they would be hard pressed to maintain the myth of the antiracist North and the racist South. By not principally focusing on outcome, discriminators had to merely privatize their public policies to get around the Civil Rights Act. And that is precisely what they did.
Though the congressmen were aware of these privatizing forces, they chose not to explicitly bar seemingly race-neutral policies that had discriminatory public outcomes through racial disparities. On the urgings of segregationists, in fact, Congress actually provided the means for the progression of racism. Section 703(h) of Title VII allowed employers "to give and to act upon the results of any professionally developed ability test." Though eugenicists had been discounted in mainstream America, members of Congress and their constituents had thoroughly embraced their standardized mental tests as having the capacity to assess what did not exist: general intelligence. In the job industry, in education, and in many other sectors of society, officials could justify their racial disparities by pointing to test scores and claiming they were not intending to discriminate. And to racist Americans, the racial gaps in the scores -- the so-called achievement gap -- said something was wrong with the Black test-takers -- not the tests.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first important civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It outlawed public, intentional discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in government agencies and facilities, public accommodations, education, and employment; established a federal enforcement structure; and empowered victims of discrimination to sue and the government to withhold federal funds from violators. Hours after President Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964, he appeared before television cameras to play up the American "ideal of freedom" for cynics in Los Angeles and Lagos and Lhasa. "Today in far corners of distant continents," he proclaimed, "the ideals of those American patriots still shape the struggles of men who hunger for freedom."
Malcolm X had another take on the Civil Rights Act, echoing the thoughts of antiracist young minds like Angela Davis's. If the government could not enforce the existing laws, he asked the Organization of African Unity conference in 1964, "how can anyone be so naïve as to think all the additional laws brought into being by the civil-rights bill will be enforced?"
Excerpted from Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Nation Books.
Author: Ibram X. Kendi