Cultural Critique / Politics / The Color Line

Dealing With Racism in a Post-Racial America

People gathered for the Confederate Heritage Rally in front of the Capitol in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday. Jeff Haller for The New York Times Feb. 19, 2011

 

Today on Facebook, one of my professors had posted a link to the New York Times article covering the Sons of the Confederacy and their commemoration of the swearing in of Confederate President Jefferson Davis 150 years earlier on February 19, 1861 in Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederate States of America (CSA).   Here’s a quote from the article that most got to me:

The principal message of the group is that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that has been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South.

The other matter of subjugation — that is, slavery — went unmentioned at the event (Davis did not refer to it in his original address, but he emphasized the maintenance of African slavery as a cause for secession in other high-profile settings). And the issue of slavery was largely brushed aside in interviews as a mere function of the time, and not a defining feature, of the Confederacy.

Asked about the prominent speeches and documents that describe the protection of slavery as the primary cause of secession, Joe Dupree of Mobile, Ala., said the question itself was wrong.

“African slavery is a 4,000-year-old African institution that affected us a couple of hundred years,” he said. “It is, historically, an error.”

So, in 2011 we have white Southerners who are of the opinion that a) white Confederacy has been historically distorted–it wasn’t that bad; b) they had a right to secede and better yet, their reasons for secession had nothing to do with slavery, because–it wasn’t that bad; c) that slavery was really an African continental practice that whites just merely picked up casually, and that it should be viewed as a human and historical aberration in the long line of good that Europeans have done, because–it wasn’t that bad.

This was an article that I read in juxtaposition to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article I stumbled across last Friday.  That article was speaking of the increased racial incidents on the campus of University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, their flagship school.  The story recounts the number of incidents of blatant racism from racial epithets being yelled at passing black students by white students, to graffiti on sidewalks.

Frankly, I was a bit shocked.

And then I remembered I went to three HBCUs for all of my education, and now I’m working at one.

If I can parenthetically park here and and say that because of my HBCU education and experience, I never had to deal with blatant racism nor the institutional kind that many of my friends who went to majority schools had to encounter.  Whatever slights I may have run into, I never had to question “Did this happen because of my skin color?”  (Well, maybe at some depending on how light or dark you are, but that’s for another post.)  So, when I read of the story at ‘Bama, I had to realize that this didn’t quite jive well with my understanding of how far we’ve come.

Let FoxNews and the tragedy that is FoxNation website, and Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and all of the ilk of the Tea Party movement tell the story, we have entered a state of post-racism, as evidenced by us electing the first openly mulatto black president and seeing diversity numbers constantly rising.  From the likes of Andrew Breitbart who can sanction the imaging the First Lady as a fat black woman in a cartoon, to how college age students feel free to yell racial slurs at their fellow classmates, to a white fraternity stopping in front of a black sorority house at ‘Bama in Confederate military attire, we get a sense that indeed we’re not post-racial at all in this country.

Attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace stands defiantly at the door while being confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. 11 June 1963

I think if these had highlighted cases of perhaps subtle racism, where people’s prejudices oozed to the top subconsiously just because they were on auto-pilot or something, I’d be the first to excuse it and truly use it as a moment to not be angry, but moved to use it as a teaching moment.  But from what I read in the AJC article, some of this spurned from when the school decided to commemorate the first black students enrolled at the school.  And all of us who have seen “Eyes on the Prize” remember the ghostly black and white image of then Alabama Governor George Wallace physically standing in the doorway of that school symbolizing everything there was about the Jim Crow South and it’s wretched and abominable human, civil and equal rights policies the systematically disenfranchised, disengaged and dehumanized the black populace at the time.  So to have a statue or memorial erected to honor those students and their sacrifices certainly was a move in the right direction.  But, I’m sure in the school administrators’ zeal to do the right thing for outward political action, they failed to address the culture of the students and attempt to overcome the apparent obstacles.  Given the track record of whites in the South, however, this was probably intentional.

The University of Alabama's Foster Auditorium was the site of George Wallace's `stand in the schoolhouse door' against integration in 1963. Don Kausler Jr., AP

By erecting a memorial or dedicating something to those black students gives the image of “doing the right thing.”  However, particularly in a culture where change often times results in an entrenchment deeper into the countercultural values, “doing the right thing” can actually result in the opposite effect of what you expected.  What I can’t help but wonder is if this is the result of one’s submerged beliefs, or a concerted effort meant to purposely undermine diversity initiatives.  Besides that, I must admit that I’m a bit discouraged that we have given birth to a younger generation that is still steeped in the horribly racist past of their foreparents.  It’s 2011.  To hear of 20 and 21 year olds who feel okay to drive down a street, pass black students and yell “Nigger!” and God knows what else out of a car window is more than disheartening.  To act with such impunity speaks to a culture that supports and endorses such hurtful and destructive thinking.

Then I read the article today celebrating the inauguration of Jefferson Davis.

Aha.  This is where it comes from.

When Americans, today, who have the benefit of an historical lens with which to look back and measure against, still come to the conclusion that a) it was their right to secede from the Union and b) they were justified in doing so, because of taxes and tariffs that unjustly affected the Southern states (and might I conjecturally ask, were the taxes and tariffs incurred because of their holding of slaves and import and export amongst other slave holding entities in the Caribbean–therefore, of course, these levies would affect the South more strongly than the rest of the country), it shouldn’t really come to any shock that this cultural mindset would be passed on down to a younger generation.

This is a generation that may have been told by parents that they got replaced on their jobs because of affirmative action initiative or by that ugly word “quotas.”  And also, let’s remember that many of these white people live in rural communities that are just about as segregated as they were prior to the 1960s.  Going to college may be the first time that some of these white people were actually forced to have to interact with blacks and people of other races.

Is there anything we can do?

Well, for starters let’s stop telling the myth that we’re in a post-racial America.  As far as I’m concerned there’s just as much racism as there was 50-plus years ago.  Rev. Al Sharpton said it best at Rosa Parks’ funeral: his generation and before had to deal with Jim Crow, but our generation has met his son James Crow, Esq.  They have the same DNA and the father has passed on the same amoral compass on to his son, but the son has a different outward appearance and no longer fits the quintessential image of a redneck from a rural southern town, but has expanded to include the Wall Street banker or the CEO of a company with racist hiring practices.

What struck me interesting was in the AJC article and their quick discussion of the self segregation of Greek life on the campus of ‘Bama.  First off, that’s a bad premise on which to comment on Greek organizations.  Black Greek organizations were created almost solely because all of the other Greek organizations had a “whites only” policy.  Beyond that, black Greek organizations, like HBCUs, never had “blacks only” policies.  By the time white Greek organizations began accepting black members, it was almost as if to say “too late; we have our own.”

I think this logic can be extrapolated to some extent to the other entities such as church and other clubs.  Certainly blacks and whites have certain cultural signifiers that would automatically draw racial divisions, but I think to act as though the onus of reconciliation should be on the part of blacks is ludicrous.  Yes, forgiveness for past sins is done by the one victimized, but still, that’s done more for personal healing rather than for reconciliation on the part of the victimizer.  Blacks are more expected to join white fraternities than whites expected to join black fraternities; blacks are expected to join multi-racial churches with a white pastor while whites aren’t expected to join black churches with black pastors.  It speaks to blacks forced into assimilation, not just into American culture, but into white American culture.

Blacks are always asked to move out of our comfort zone for the sake of racial parity.  I personally think that’s unfair.  I think it’s like telling a woman to apologize to a rapist for wearing seductive clothing that enticed him to want to rape her.  Blacks should not have to apologize for their skin color in order to achieve racial equity be it de facto or de jure.

Seeing as how recent protests in Egypt concerning the now former President Mubarak have inspired the proletariat of the world, even in the midwest as teachers’ unions protest their right to come to a collective bargaining table against a GOP governor, I think “we, the people” here in the United States should be reminded of our collective power.  This power can be utilized in marches and democratic displays at the voting booth all the way effectively lobbying in Congress directly addressing the policies that often times help the rich and harm the poor.

We can’t afford to continue this lie that we are in a post-racial America.  Lying to ourselves as a country will never move us forward as a country nor as a human race.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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6 thoughts on “Dealing With Racism in a Post-Racial America

  1. Dunno about anyone else, but for me it’s a constant walk on the tightrope between “it’s a a two-way street” and “eff James Crow, Esq.” For example, I share with some other whites the inexplicable discomfort at the entrenched “apartness” exemplified by, say, the black Greek life**, yet I can only groan in disgust when some moron shows total cluelessness about exactly how that apartness came to exist.

    And until recently I was naive about just how pervasive that cluelessness seems to be. I have no idea what kinds of things these people are having poured into their heads, but they pretty much guarantee that Americans can’t talk to each other about anything.

    It seems to me that most people, black and white, are lazy, and will take the short mental path if the long one can be avoided. Thus you have too many whites falling back on lazy cliches to assess a situation regardless of how badly they fit, and too many blacks lumping every instance of cluelessness under the sledgehammer umbrella of “racism.” These whites ruin it for other whites who consider awareness to have intrinsic value in and of itself, and those blacks ruin it for other blacks who take the trouble to differentiate between benign and malicious ignorance.

    The fact is that human beings, period, usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming out of their comfort zones. This has been made about a thousand times more difficult by the existence of an entire reactionary media industry devoted to stroking tribalist soft spots and keeping old, gaping wounds from closing. (It’d be bad enough if their goal, like those of white nationalists, was actual white supremacy, but the fact that they’re doing this strictly for cynical political gain is to me even more sleazy and contemptible.)

    **What the hell do I care, anyway? Fraternities are like alien planets to me. But then, no one ever accused these things of having much to do with rationality.

  2. Great post! I went to a public university in Georgia and there was always racial tension. Nothing explosive ever happened when I was there, but it was always a tense situation.

    I remember in high school when former Gov. Roy Barnes changed the state flag by removing the Stars and Bars from it. People down here went ballistic and high school students were wearing T-shirts with the Confederate flag on it. These kids kept saying, “It’s not hate; it’s heritage.” These kids today are still being taught the white-washed version of Southern history and how/why the South seceded. Their own parents and grandparents cling to the idea, as you stated, that the South was well within its right to become the Confederacy to flee Northern tyranny and aggression.

    People who claim we live in a post-racial America are just lying to us and lying to themselves. We all know where one bullet away from creating riots if Obama is ever assassinated by a white supremacist or avid supporter of Sarah Palin.

      • Exactly. I should note that the same year all this started, we had our first black principal. He cracked down on (black) boys wearing their pants below their asses, but didn’t touch the Dixie/Confederate flag shirts. There was even one guy who pulled out a huge confederate flag during a pep rally and he wasn’t even suspended. Irony at its best…

        Understandably, there’s no way he could have cracked down on that stuff and not face backlash from the school district’s central office and the community.

  3. I’d understand it (barely) if this so-called “Confederacy” was officially recognized and lasted a century or two (blaring “pride” & “heritage” 24/7 post-Civil War doesn’t count). My mentality on this might be skewed, but I see it as a bunch of good ol’ boys/girls (AKA slaves) defending the plantation. The irony w/ that banner coupled with the above pic just oozes, but that’s another topic. These days, I just treat it like a unintentional comedy and keep it movin’.

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