Selma Plus Fifty: Time For an Eight-Lane Bridge

Selma Plus Fifty: Time For an Eight-Lane Bridge March 5, 2015

We are rightly celebrating the bravery of people—both the famous and the forgotten—who contributed to the events at Selma, Alabama fifty years ago, events that led to a sea change in the civil rights of many US citizens.

The anniversary has led inevitably to a question: Are things better now?

In one way, yes. Yet, getting rid of overt, state-sanctioned oppression is somewhat like shooting fish in a barrel. The target is not hard to spot.

But, after civil rights, what? This is contested ground in the United States: what do US citizens get (deserve) as a result of being US citizens?

Whatever that list includes, an even chance (dare I say “ a new deal”?) doesn’t appear to be on it.

The recently released Justice Department’s analysis of crime statistics in Ferguson, Missouri shows that eighty-five percent of traffic stops; ninety percent of tickets; and ninety-five percent of jaywalking arrests are of African American men. In a city where two-thirds of the population is African American. And a majority of the police force is Euro-American, with a propensity to racist jokes in email.

Makes ya think . . .

Here’s the Selma-Plus-Fifty question: After we have civil rights, what do we have the right to do, and what do we have the right to expect of government and society?
Social psychologist Hazel Markus is a leading researcher in what she has named “possible selves.” As Dr Markus sees it, we—all of us human types—are constantly—every moment—in a place of choice between what she calls our “expected,” our “hoped for,” and our “feared” future selves.

That is: What we expect will be next. What we hope will be next. What we fear will be next.

For me, the most interesting finding in Dr Markus’ work is that class or race differences DO NOT lead to lower self-esteem. That’s important to note. It’s not self-esteem that changes with class and race oppressions—what changes is the perception of what is possible. Possible futures.

Everyone can imagine succeeding or failing. Yet most of us see those possible futures in the form of opposites: success or failure, rich or poor. Few of us imagine arrest or death.

So, if I choose to create a Ponzi Scheme (read: Bernie Madoff) or investment banking (no comment) or drug dealing, I’m looking at the success or failure of the enterprise. Not the death or arrest possibilities.

That’s because we’re human.

What we choose next among our possible selves depends upon the social constructs surrounding us.

Let’s be real: given what the concept of possible selves tells us about the formation of selves, what did Selma, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Voting Rights Act provide people of color?

Political equality.

Which is fine and good. Even necessary for the next step. But, you know what? Every citizen should have expected that already. Duh!

And . . . in fifty years . . . that gain alone remains questionable.

But there IS a next step.

I think it makes sense to follow Dr. Markus’ analysis of what the construction of possible selves means within social constructs.

The selves we construct from moment to moment are encouraged or constrained by what we can imagine. What is possible to imagine for a young African American in Ferguson, Missouri?

That question stands as a damning accusation across those fifty years since Selma. What. Can. A young. African American. Expect from you and me and society?

An engineering degree? A jaywalking charge? A bullet? Possible futures . . .

What do we the people owe each and every US kid born?

For me, it’s not acceptable that one American kid will get an engineering degree and another a ticket for jaywalking that will serve as a ticket to the prison-industrial complex. Not acceptable.

What should each and every child expect?

How about a whole lot; a bunch of possible selves. Selves that will not be arrested or murdered.

C’mon, people: let’s make that happen. In a lot less than fifty years.

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