We live today in a contradiction, in a society built on “colorblind racism.” For this to work, racism must be defined to a vanishing point: it becomes an unfortunate vestige of the past, and its proponents—the Klansman, the neo-Nazi, the bigoted rapper—are offered like freaks in a sideshow. Over here in the mainstream, we instead are invited to celebrate sanitized versions of our past, admiring dead heroes whose triumphs underscore the distance between then and now.
Last December—58 years after she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man—the political party most associated with white men congratulated Rosa Parks for her courage. Specifically, the Republican National Committee (RNC) announced on Twitter, “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” Within four hours, even the RNC admitted that the wording was unfortunate: it provoked an onslaught of parody and derision, and this made the party look willfully clueless about contemporary racism. But the RNC’s attempt at re-framing Rosa Parks was, in fact, standard procedure.
Attempts to co-opt the modern Black Freedom Struggle started almost as soon as the movements themselves did, and this was particularly true of the southern phases of the struggle. Even the phrase “Civil Rights Movement” is an attempt at containment; as Malcolm X noted, the struggle is for human rights, not civil rights. Parks herself has been a key site for this contest of meaning, from early depictions of her as “just a tired seamstress” through this recent attempt to mark the end of racism. In past decades, similar efforts at selective amnesia often triumphed, simply by drowning out activists’ voices and counter-narratives.
The RNC’s mistake was to attempt this on Twitter. Feminista Jones’s response, #RacismEndedWhen, was wickedly funny, and its bite came from its ability to reveal the facile and opportunistic appeal of such celebrations.