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Text and Meaning in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (part 3 of 3)

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To read this Text and Meaning series article from the beginning please see the links below. Part 3 starts now:

“But let me say to you that there is lynching of the spirit and of the soul as well as lynching of the body.” ––James Weldon Johnson (from the speech Three Achievements and Their Significance)

Although not stated in such terms, an important goal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was to combat the practice of guerrilla decontextualization by omission. Such a practice may be defined as the reduction of an individual’s value or importance by exclusion from participation in the social, political, or economic activities associated with a given society.

For African-Americans throughout the U.S.’s history, that has often meant denial of the same opportunities many non-African-Americans have been able to take for granted. The results have been reflected in disproportionate statistics across the board profiling such factors as: higher rates of imprisonment, predisposition to certain diseases and infant mortality, death by violence, levels of suicide, impoverishment, and inadequate education.

Mainstream Guerrilla Decontextualization

Mainstream media’s representation, or its guerrilla decontextualization, of black men’s lives in particular can set the stage for erroneous assumptions capable of damaging an individual or a nation. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams inadvertently provided one example of guerrilla decontextualization by omission on his show’s February 17, 2014, broadcast.

During the show, Mr. Williams lauded comic Jimmy Fallon’s debut as the host of the Tonight Show and treated viewers to a color graphic of some nine late-night commentators with whom Fallon would be competing for an audience. African-American late-night television veteran Arsenio Hall, himself acclaimed in 2013 after returning to television following a 19-year hiatus, was notably absent from the white-dominated image. So was PBS’ late-night talk show host Tavis Smiley.

Williams declared that the battle for late-night the time slot ratings would boil down to one between “two Jimmies,” Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. After Arsenio Hall noted the omission of his name and face from the broadcast on his own syndicated show, the fair-minded Williams, whose broadcasts are generally demographically inclusive, graciously acknowledged the sleight and apologized for it on air.

The question nevertheless remained as to why the omission occurred in the first place in regard to a man whose credits in the late-night television slot stretch back further (to 1989 to be precise) than any of those featured in the graphic, including the much-celebrated David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. The answer may have to do with a widespread culture of guerrilla decontextualization––often sustained among African Americans themselves–– that continuously promotes black men’s lives as inconsequential or expendable. The danger of reinforcing such a premise remains as deadly in 2014 as it was 50 years ago.

Nations and Individuals

When reviewing reasons to continue or discontinue affirmative action programs and civil rights initiatives that reflect the intent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, certain members of the Supreme Court have asked, “When does it end? At what point is enough, enough?”

Perhaps one answer should have come from someone with a voice loud enough, or maybe just clear enough, to reach such lofty legal heights and proclaim that “it ends” when the bodies of young black men stop turning up dead just because they are young black men. It ends when they stop winding up in prisons because justice appears less forgiving, less interested in truth, and less blind when it comes to darker complexions. It ends when the institutionalized racial imbalances that directly diminish the quality of millions of people’s lives are no longer allowed to exist.

The study of history empowers nations and individuals with an ability to avoid errors of the past and lay foundations for victories in the future. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented precisely such a hope––that America had learned from its past and acted to secure a better tomorrow. Is it more ironic or tragic that so many now seek in the 21st century to reverse the gains so painfully won in the 20th century? It is possible the price of finding out may prove far more expensive than anyone might wish to pay.

by Aberjhani
author of The River of Winged Dreams
and ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love

More on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 & Aberjhani’s Text and Meaning Series

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