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From the ERA to Black Lives Matter: Is momentum enough to generate actual change?

By Valerie Steenhaut

Global politics

Jun 11, 2020

In times of pandemic-induced isolation followed by outbursts of racist police violence, our awareness of injustice has risen, leaving us wavering between senses of anger and powerlessness. Many of us, especially white people like myself, are taking this unreal momentum as a privileged opportunity to learn, listen and question our day-to-day values and actions—which were previously hidden under a frantic pace of routine. But is momentum enough to generate actual change?

Last week, HBO aired the final episode of Mrs America, a series depicting the US’ complex struggle for social reform, following the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement, which fought and protested to incorporate gender equality into the American constitution. Simultaneously, the series also represents a notable moment in time where second-wave feminists were at their peak point, believing they could affect real, systemic change. 

The dreadful power of the story lies, however, in seeing how the progressive feminists lose (the ERA is still not ratified in the US), as we see history backlash before our eyes. The weapon behind this backlash is Phyllis Schlafly, an intelligent, conservative anti-feminist housewife, who succeeds in mobilising a counter-campaign paving the way for Trumpian populism and neo-conservative politics. US President Donald Trump is even known to have attended her funeral as a sign of gratitude to her legacy. Cheers for that, Schlafly.

In the introduction to Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (a second wave, white feminist classic), Lionel Shriver writes: “Social progress is reliably two steps forward, one step back.” Comparing the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a general momentum for civil rights, we indeed encounter countless stories of similar backlashes—moments where movements came close to real, radical change, before being cut down again by an opposition that’s too afraid to admit they might have been wrong and too comfortable to accept any change.

Watching President Trump marching into a Church, Bible in hand, in the middle of a wave of international outrage, we’ve come to understand just how deeply divided our world has become. As most of us probably got caught last week in the #BlackoutTuesday discussion, many probably didn’t even see any black squares on their feed. Some might even have sent loving emojis to the US police forces, in praise of their reaction to the “devastating riots attacking their nation.”

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It’s striking to realise (and learn, for some) exactly how we have been living inside a bubble on either side of the political spectrum, enforced by our like-minded friends and the algorithms which provide us with content we already agree with. Very rarely are we presented with ideas that challenge our way of understanding the world. We have gone as far as ignoring those specific moments and facts. This echo chamber has made us deeply underestimate our opponents, it has prevented us from hearing minority voices, and has divided us as a society.

In the middle of the world’s divide, there seems to be little room left for universal, common goals, which should go beyond left or right-wing. In a way, we are worse off than the political movements of the seventies, who at the time could get the support of progressive conservatives capable of seeing oppressive systems (the then First Lady Betty Ford, a Republican, was a vocal feminist who supported abortion rights and the ERA). This political type today seems to be nonexistent.

It’s demoralising to realise how many issues have generally remained unchanged, not only when it comes to Mrs America’s gender issues, but also in terms of race, climate justice and public access to education, healthcare and unemployment benefits. It’s shocking how, once we start looking, the intersectionality of discrimination becomes visible everywhere. 

History has already shown us that momentum is not enough. What we can learn from both feminism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is that continuous awareness, continuous learning and continuous activism can.

10 ways you can support the movement for black rights and racial justice

As the global fight against racial injustice gains steam, meaningful change is beginning to materialise. From mayors pledging to defund police forces and racial justice organisations receiving an outpouring of support to a sharp rise in public discussions around issues of systemic racism—evidence of progress trails behind the swelling wave of protest and outrage. It is important to build on this historic momentum and keep the foot on the gas.

What can you do to support the movement for black rights and racial justice?

Attend protests

Taking to the streets to demonstrate remains one of the most effective ways to protest injustice and demand immediate change. Check the Black Lives Matter website, local community websites and social media for information about protests taking place in your area. If your circumstances don’t allow you to march in the streets, you may want to inquire about virtual protests happening, like the one recently arranged by Black Lives Matter London.

Give protesters supplies

Protesters marching in the streets are in need of various supplies, including water, masks, food, and more. Visit the webpage of a protest happening near you to learn about its designated supply drop-off locations, or contact protest organisers for information on how to help.

Donate to bail funds

As a growing number of protesters are being arrested by police forces, bail money is urgently needed for people who cannot afford to purchase their freedom. This Google Doc contains a list of bailout and legal funds categorised by city and state.

Support organisations for black empowerment

Systemic racism has robbed black communities of funds and resources and stilted progress among its residents. Contributing to initiatives designed to empower black communities is a crucial step in rectifying the ravages of centuries of racial discrimination. Black Visions Collective, National Bailout and Campaign Zero are three organisations that work in varying ways to achieve long term improvement for black communities, end their oppression and promote their rights and safety. You may want to research similar organisations operating in your city or state.

Support black-owned businesses

Make it a point to support black-owned businesses, restaurants and shops in your area. You should also research which companies are complicit in perpetuating systemic racism and refrain from supporting them—L’Oréal, Reformation and Zimmerman, I’m looking at you.

10 ways you can support the movement for black rights and racial justice

Defend immigrants of colour

Immigrants of colour are disproportionately targeted, terrorised, and abused by the government—at the border, in detention facilities, and in black and brown communities repeatedly raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the invitation of the NYPD, ICE agents have been infiltrating Black Lives Matter protests in New York City, and have already detained one immigrant. Research and donate to organisations working to protect and advocate on behalf of immigrants of colour.

Support black LGBTQ organisations

Queer people of colour are at an increased risk of experiencing violence, exclusion, police brutality and oppression. They are also more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health issues as a result of what is commonly referred to as ‘compounded minority stress’—being both queer and black or brown. The LGBTQ Racial Justice Fund and the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts Collective are two out of numerous organisations working to protect and uplift black queer people in the US. If you’re based in the UK, you may want to check out UK Black Pride, IMAAN and NAZ Project.

Contact local representatives

While the focus tends to revolve around national politics—it is local authorities that are often hotbeds of racial injustice. Inquire about your mayor, comptroller, chief of police, and district attorney, demand accountability for their actions, and be sure to vote in local elections and get involved in your community.

Join efforts to defund the police

Across the US, and around the world, more and more people are demanding to defund the police and invest their budget in community projects and infrastructure and locally-run emergency-response teams. Minneapolis may be the first US city to completely disband its police force, and LA Mayor Eric Garcetti had already pledged to slash the city’s police budget and invest the money in communities of colour. Join the growing demand to defund the police by supporting #8toAbolition, the Movement for Black Lives or other NGOs operating in your city or county.

Dismantle Whiteness

Challenge yourself with daily and rigorous reflections on how the concept of Whiteness may affect your life; in what ways does it limit or impact your actions, your perceptions, your opinions, your circle of friends? Policies are important milestones in the fight against systemic racism, but they alone cannot herald real, long-lasting change on societal and institutional scales. Slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow laws had been eradicated, and yet here we are still battling the plague of racism. Ultimately, racial justice could only be achieved when we fundamentally change the ways we see ourselves and obliterate the institution and concept of Whiteness.