When I was taking the Justice at Work: History of Labor, Civil Rights, and Immigration Law, I often found myself thinking, “What was it like, to live in that transformative historical moment? What is it like, to live through them and look back on them with the hindsight of history and realize you were just a cipher on the wall?”
Because so many of us are ciphers, watching as events play out around us. My mom once told me about living in Washington D.C. during the 1960 riots, and I remember being awed by the story: My mom was a witness to history!
As an adult, I realize that I hadn’t got that quite right. My mom was a bystander. She didn’t participate or protest the riots; she didn’t even stay in town to observe for historical record. She left the dangerous area.
And that is so common. I e-mailed my dad to ask about what it was like to attend segregated schools and start his career in a workforce divided along sexist and racist lines — a reality I cannot envision — and my dad’s response was basically, “Well, [upper northwest state] was pretty white back then … our schools weren’t so much segregated as there were no black people.” He said the first time he saw a black person was as a teenager, when a black family on vacation stopped at a gas station in their little town.
That … blew my mind. I try to imagine such a monochromatic world, and I can’t.
It’s weird, too, to think about all the people who weren’t railing against change, but weren’t fighting for it, either. All the people who stood silent on the sidelines (like my parents), waiting for the chips to fall where they may.
I wonder how they justify it. Did all the people who stayed silent during Hitler’s rise to power regret that choice, in the future? Did the Americans who turned a blind eye to American concentration camps later feel ashamed? Do bystanders from the Civil Rights era struggle to explain their inaction to their children and grandchildren; to justify it to themselves?
I wonder, in 20 years, how I will feel about myself when I look back on this era. I wonder if I will feel ashamed of my choices, or if I will feel confident that I did everything within my power to check bigotry, hatred, and fascism; to speak out against it.
I hear people justify the decision not to vote — pointing to the ridiculous unfairness of the two-party system, or saying there is no viable candidate in their preferred party so they “don’t know who to vote for.” Like it’s impossible to cross party lines and vote for the other party if your own party isn’t putting forth candidates you agree with, and I wonder how the non-voters who dislike Trump and refuse to support democratic candidates will feel in 20 years if Trump is elected? Will they think inaction was enough? Will they regret not taking the opportunity to put their name down in opposition?
It’s weird to look around us and realize we are making history. This era will be in textbooks as a watershed moment in America’s history — but which way will we turn? Where are we going?
How will the bystanders feel?