IN A 2005 COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.” At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy—“by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary”—and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.
IF THE COLOR LINE WAS THE PROBLEM of the American 20th century, then the 20th century did not manage to solve it. De jure segregation ended some forty years ago, and American social norms mostly bar the public expression of racist sentiment or stereotype. Yet by any measure—access to quality healthcare and education, rate of incarceration, etc.—black Americans remain proportionally worse off than their white peers.