The June 10, 1966, cover of Life magazine is a gauge of how much America has changed—and how much it hasn't. It featured a photo of Elizabeth Taylor from her movie "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" —which it described as a "shocker" that "shatters the rules of censorship." Today the film wouldn't shock a fifth-grader.
The other story mentioned on the cover was "Plot to Get 'Whitey': Red-hot young Negroes plan a ghetto war." That caption could run on the popular Drudge Report website, which after the murder of five police officers in Dallas had such headlines as "Black Lives Kill," "He wanted to kill white people" and "'Black Power group' warns of more assassinations."
Fifty years ago, the specter of black revolt haunted many whites. Demonstrations and riots by African-Americans induced widespread fear. They still do.
You may think whites have reason to be scared after the black gunman in Dallas carried out his shocking act of racial vengeance. But blacks would have been equally justified being scared last year after Dylann Roof killed nine black people at a South Carolina church in what he said was an attempt to start a race war. But Drudge didn't hype that fear.
Americans of all races were horrified by what happened in Dallas. But it stirred a different response among some whites than it did among other people, raising the old stereotype of African-Americans as a constant threat to white safety and prosperity.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani denounced Black Lives Matter, which organized the protest that ended in deadly gunfire. He said the group is anti-American and racist and "puts a target on" police officers' backs. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Texas, accused President Barack Obama of inciting "hostility" toward cops.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, proclaimed himself the "law and order candidate"—echoing a phrase used by Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the 1968 presidential race to attract voters frightened by urban riots, crime and Black Power activists.
Trump has poked racial nerves by portraying Mexican immigrants as "rapists," disputing whether Obama was born in America and falsely claiming blacks commit 81 percent of the murders of whites.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that compared with supporters of any other Republican or Democratic candidate, Trump supporters "are more likely to describe African Americans as 'criminal,' 'unintelligent,' 'lazy' and 'violent.'" Most of them also think discrimination against whites is a bigger problem than discrimination against blacks.
While most African-Americans believe Black Lives Matter is a nonviolent civil rights movement, most whites see it as violent and a distraction from problems like discrimination. But resentment of those demanding racial progress is nothing new. Martin Luther King is revered by all today—but on the eve of his legendary 1963 March on Washington, most whites opposed it. In 1965, only 36 percent had a favorable opinion of him.
The critics fault Black Lives Matter for its disruptive marches, angry rhetoric, denunciations of police conduct and supposed incitement of violence. But the same critics have no use for Obama, who has pursued change through peaceful legal channels, from community organizing to law to elected office.
Despite his restrained rhetoric and cautious policies, many conservatives insist on seeing the president as an angry militant. Bill O'Reilly has charged him with "passive racism," and Glenn Beck said Obama harbors "a deep-seated hatred for white people." A Rasmussen poll last year found that 54 percent of whites "believe Obama has driven the races further apart, a view shared by only 21 percent of blacks and 38 percent of other minority voters."
In the minds of many whites, Obama is dangerous, hostile and anti-white—Karl Rove once called him a "political thug"—not because he behaves that way but because that is a common racist stereotype of blacks. No amount of effort to show his understanding of the concerns of whites or police can make up for the color of his skin.
When blacks pursue change, some whites always feel they are doing it the wrong way at the wrong pace, thus worsening race relations. These people believe that if blacks gain, they will lose. And they fear that if blacks gain more power, they will use it to exact retribution against whites.
The truth is that today, just as in 1966, the vast majority of blacks don't want to "get whitey." They just want—and demand—the same rights, opportunities and protections that whites take for granted. For some people, that's scary enough.
© Copyright 2016 by Creators Syndicate Inc.