I recently had a conversation with four men describing the wonders of the “good old days.” How things were so good in our youth. How, in the 1940s, 50s, and even into the early 60s life was beautiful. My friends reveled in their memories and wondered how things had gone so sour. They remembered that they were happy then, and our country seems in such turmoil now, so “screwed up.”
For part of the conversation, I was quiet. Then, finally, after the other three had gone down memory lane, romanticizing the past and vilifying the present, a most enthusiastic friend asked my opinion. As a person who writes and teaches on happiness, he may have thought I would expand on their happy nostalgia.
I said I couldn’t argue with him. The country did seem happier and, in many ways, probably was. But, I added, it depends on who you’re asking. The rosy picture is remarkably different if you survey Black Americans. Or if you asked women if they too saw their lives and opportunities as a “Life with Father” ideal. Nostalgia is, by its nature, cherry-picking.
Before traveling too far down memory lane yourself, go to your computer and search out typical 1950s advertisements. Examine the cultural view of women during the middle of the last century when sexism was rampant. Women were pictured as intellectually inferior, naïve, childlike, and expected to be only suitable in service-related roles. Life may have been easier on some dimensions for the American male but not necessarily for his female counterpart.
You won’t find negative advertisements of African Americans in the media during that same period. As far as corporate America and most White Americans were concerned, Blacks were invisible. That was possible because they were severely limited in where they lived, worked, and were educated. Denying their history and White’s part in suppressing their freedom played a significant role in keeping Blacks down and out of sight. I doubt if many Blacks romantically reminisce over this time in their lives.
The change in attitudes toward women is in strong contrast to the lack of change in attitudes toward Blacks. Women have entered the workforce in great numbers. They have surpassed their male counterparts as students in higher education. Although still not matching those of men, women’s wages have risen considerably, and their career choices have expanded enormously. They marry and have children later in life and more often give birth to children on their terms. In other words, modern women have made great strides toward cultural equality, not so with the Black population since the middle of the last century.
Today’s Blacks are 2.5 times more likely than Whites to live in poverty, twice as likely to be unemployed, 30 percent less likely to own their home, and six times as likely to be incarcerated. It’s possible to pile on endless statistics that prove America’s Blacks continue to be severely disadvantaged. Most important is that those findings have not changed much in the past fifty years, with few exceptions.
It’s not that there hasn’t been some progress. We see African Americans in numerous industries that were formerly all White. And, of course, we’ve elected a Black male president of the United States and currently have a Black female vice president. Nevertheless, we remain a divided nation.
The difference between the progress made by women and the limited progress in the Black population is complicated, but one reason stands out — segregation. Men live with women, listen and share feelings with women. In addition, men are educated with women, increasingly work with women, and observe their challenges.
Nothing similar has occurred in racial relations. While there are many islands of racial integration, the vast majority of Americans remain segregated by race and, in many cases, even more so than they were eighty years ago. As long as most White Americans remain isolated from African Americans’ history and daily challenges, Whites can deny and ignore the systemic racism that keeps many Blacks impoverished.
When we as citizens deny the hard truths of our racial past, we contribute to the systemic racism that continues to plague our country. Facing the hard reality is uncomfortable but necessary if we are to get closer to the American ideal of opportunity for all. Nostalgia to a false memory is not just a mental error. It’s a stumbling block to a better America.