Learning From Rosa Parks

Daily Pennsylvanian
University of Pennsylvania

When Rosa Parks passed away on Oct. 25, an outpouring of discussion followed:

“How will we honor her legacy?”

“What are we doing to further her cause?”

“Where is the civil rights movement now?”

Dozens of articles and columns were published worldwide commemorating her life of service and calling for action to continue her battle against injustice. “We are at a crossroads,” said Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, “We can either go forward or stand still.”

Two weeks later, we are standing still. The fervor has died down. We have gone back to our normal lives, and the memory of Parks is neatly tucked away in the section of our hearts reserved for those we have lost.

What happened to the sense of urgency that was intrinsic to the activism of Parks’ heyday? The simple act of refusing to give up a bus seat was by no means an isolated incident. In 1955, many Americans, some of whom will never be publicly recognized, performed simple acts of bravery in the national fight for equality. Is it just that our generation is lazy and complacent?

Sen. Barack Obama offers a different explanation. “In the absence of dogs and hoses,” he told The New York Times, “there is no immediate, obvious enemy before us, so it’s harder to mobilize a sense of outrage.”

This presents our generation with a unique social climate. Where there were highly visible unjust laws and barriers to break down in the 1950s and 60s, we now have unlimited “access”, at least on paper. Though there is rampant injustice right under our noses each day, we are generally able to function without feeling any tangible consequences of the subtle racism, classism and prejudice that plague American life. Most of us do not live in fear. We live by the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” “out of sight, out of mind” mantra. It keeps us sane, but the manifestations of civil injustice are bubbling just under the surface, waiting to erupt.

These problems begin in that split second of assumption that occurs in any interaction. Based on a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or even style of dress, we automatically make certain judgments about his or her background and character.

Many argue that these judgments are a part of human nature and are utterly unavoidable. Though this may be true, we run into trouble when we rely on them to make decisions about how to treat people. More often than not, such flash prejudgments are fueled by perpetuated stereotypes, not individual experience.

Take a friend of mine; let’s call him Elroy. On a recent drive back to Philadelphia from New Jersey, Elroy was stopped for speeding. For no apparent reason, the police officer demanded to search his car. Where is the probable cause here? Though Elroy admits to speeding, there was only one apparent reason for the officer to search his car: A black man who wears his hair in locks equals a prime candidate for a night of racial profiling.

This is not a one-sided process though. We all do it. This weekend I found myself thinking like the cop who stopped Elroy when I was hosting a small homecoming “post-game” party at my house. Four guys who I didn’t know entered the room. Literally, the music stopped. Three of them black and one white, their urban style of dress caught me off guard. They wore loose T-shirts and baggy jeans. Not your typical Penn guys. I walked up to them indignantly and demanded to know who they were. To my surprise, the group consisted of one of my trusted good friend’s buddies and a few of his acquaintances.

Aside from feeling sheepish, I was struck by the ease with which I let my uninformed judgments dictate my actions. I made a decision based on assumed information and preconceived notions, and the -isms reared their ugly heads.

These sorts of avoidable situations are at the forefront of the new civil rights movement. Our new fight is against the everyday injustice of prejudgment. Let Rosa Parks’ death be a wake-up call to all. The decisions we make each day can honor or denigrate her legacy. The choice is yours. Martin Luther King III, son of the great civil rights leader, recently said, “Our struggle has gone from civil rights to human rights.” We must recognize the sense of urgency in the need to both exercise and spread the power of awareness.

Titilola Bakare is a senior English major from Harrisburg, Pa. Notes from the Underground appears on Thursdays.