My generation was supposed to be the “short attention span” generation, at least according to many of the adults around me when I was younger. Their thinking went that since we grew up with MTV just always there in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to focus on anything for longer than four minutes or so. The rise of social media and smartphone-toting adolescents led to its own wave of ballyhooing about how 140-character tweets would lead to a newer generation of young people being unable to think in more than just those little snippets. I’m honestly not that familiar with TikTok, but I’m sure that old people — probably even some of us from the “MTV Generation,” since we’re getting up there in years now — are making similar complaints about the communication and media in young people’s lives these days.
It’s not like I’ve ever been that up on contemporary trends (except for the mid-nineties, when so many of them kicked ass), but it’s hard for me to delve into the subtleties of social media these days while I’m shoulder-deep in research for my next book. That research has recently taken me to the intersection of education and the post-World War II struggles for civil rights here in America. From the effects of racism on the lives of young African-Americans at the time, to the lingering systemic inequalities that persist to this day, I sincerely hope that all of you will read more of this history before my own book comes out, because much of it is directly relevant to what we’re seeing in our social media feeds, if not our streets, today.
There’s so much that most people aren’t aware of when it comes to those struggles, but there’s also a lot that just gets forgotten in the whirlwind of our daily lives. As I was reading about the protests to secure quality education for African-American children, I was reminded of how the civil rights protests of the fifties and sixties were often years-long affairs, demonstrations after demonstrations after demonstrations, and not the tidy one-day affairs that are so much easier for us to digest, like the issuing of a Supreme Court judgment or the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Those may satiate our contemporary need for uplifting soundbites, but they often cloud the ability to truly understand how long and dogged these fights were. Many people think Brown v. Board of Education “solved” the problem of integrating schools, but it took five years, and another two Supreme Court decisions, for the initial ruling to get the teeth it needed to be enforced; even then, resistance to desegregating schools persisted, including Prince Edward County in Virginia deciding to shutter all its public schools for five years, its residents creating private schools for white children and leaving the county’s young African-Americans to fend for themselves.
The initial new wave of Black Lives Matter protests managed to knock COVID-19 out of the headlines for a few days, but I believe that more than the recent resurgence of the pandemic here in America is to blame for the attention to those protests disappearing. Your social media feed probably differs a lot from mine, but every day for the past month I’ve been getting videos of that day’s protests, which are continuing across the country; some of them are now in their second month. These protests might not be top-of-the-hour stories on cable news networks any longer (or even mentioned in the news at all), but that doesn’t mean the protests have just gone away. Despite all the hurrahs about gestures ranging from the small to the downright token, the underlying problems that spurred these new protests haven’t gone away. Many would say that they’re even getting worse as the days pass.
I don’t envy the role of newsroom managers trying to figure out how much time to devote to each news story right now — it’s hardly like the pandemic is less important now than it was before these protests — but the lack of attention to the ongoing protests is incredibly disheartening. Maybe our broader problems with focus and attention are just manifesting themselves here, but no problem that’s been entrenched in our history and culture for over four hundred years is going to go away because of one protest or one march. The reason why so many of those civil rights protests lasted for months and years is because that level of effort and persistence was needed to effect those changes. They didn’t just happen because the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dream for a better world for this children. His words were important in spurring so many people into action to help make his dream a reality, but those actions were what ultimately resulted in the victories that the civil rights movements of his day were able to achieve.
Maybe we need to call mass media out for their failure to cover the persistence of the protests, to say nothing of the continuing reasons for them. Maybe our education system is to blame for reducing so much history into so many bullet points in a classroom presentation. Most of us — and I include myself in this — should do a lot more to remind people of how the changes we need, even at the most basic of levels, necessitate struggles that will take several months at the least, and quite possibly decades. Especially for those of us who live these battles every day because of who we are, we need to educate people about how little (if anything) will get solved by passing one small law, or painting one street, or reading one book. We don’t have a choice in fighting those battles all the time. The last thing we need is “allies” who think they can “fix” our problems by sharing some posts on social media or the like.
It took a long time for this country to get as messed up as it is, and we’re not going to fix anything in the time it takes to watch a music video or push a retweet button. The sooner people realize and accept this, the sooner we can start making actual, significant progress in making things better and more equitable for all of us.