Monday, April 23, 2007

"Getting Over" Racism

Every so often, someone trots out the argument that since it's been decades even since the climax of the civil rights era, and that since overt racism is no longer acceptable in this country, African-Americans should be ready to "get over" the depridations of racial discrimination and slavery and no longer "play" the victim in society and in politics. People who trot out this argument are not usually openly dismissive of the horror that was the slave trade, slavery and legalized segregation and discrimination, but you definitely get the sense that to them, those periods in history either aren't as big of a deal as they're made out to be, or since it was a long time ago we ought to all be able to let it go of it at this point. And yet, images like the ones below make it clear to me-someone whose ancestors never suffered under slavery-that "getting over" slavery and segregation requires more time and effort than we've so far seen fit to invest. First, there's this well-known illustration of a slave ship packed full of human cargo:

And then, this image of a lynching in the early 20th century, from the website "Without Sanctuary":

Note the badly charred corpse. This picture is from 1916. Apparently, the Iraqis are only about 90 years behind us in the development of civilized society.

And lastly, this picture of a 1947 advertisement from a Slate slideshow on racists spokescharacters:

Some see these images and think "Yes, but that was all a long time ago!" But racial slavery was practiced for a long time-hundreds of years. And legalized discrimination and racial terrorism was practiced for a hundred years after the emancipation of all slaves, well into the middle of last century. It's difficult for me to imagine that for all the trauma and injury to the American psyche, society and culture caused by racial slavery and violent racism, that it would be possible for those wounds to heal in a matter of decades, and in the lifetimes of people who suffered at the hands of such discrimination. After all, many of the people still in power now were born at a time when blacks and whites couldn't go to school together. And if you want hard evidence that the profoundly damaging effects of racism are far from healed, look merely to data that's all around, on the number of impoverished African-Americans, or the number of African-American men killed by crime and violence, or the number of African-Americans who suffer from chronic disease.

And it's foolish to think that even if African-Americans, or any minority, wanted to completely abandon their status as a minority tomorrow, they'd be allowed to do so. Here's the blogger Field Negro, on how African-Americans aren't allowed by society at large to forget or escape their identity:

Don't tell me that every black person in this country wasn't on pins and needles when the shooting went down at Virginia Tech. From Oprah, to Colin Powell, to Condi Rice, they were all saying; "please Lord don't let this shooter be a Negro." And yep, my black ass was saying it too. How do you think I felt when I found out that one of the D.C. snipers was not only black, but was a Jamaican to boot. A double whammy for the field. It's why black folks who couldn't stand O.J.'s house Negro ass cheered like crazy when he was found not guilty, even though Helen Keller could see that the mother f****r did it. Its that collectivism that drives white folks and some black folks crazy. But the sad thing is, that they view us as a collective as well. Don't for a minute think that the black thug pictured on the front page of the local paper, who assaulted the little old lady, is any different than field Negro, attorney, in the majority population's eyes . Ask Oprah, her black ass got shaded in a high end department store just like Shanequa from North Philly. Why? Because her ass is black that's why, and she is a part of the collective. Yeah Oprah, your black ass might be worth a billion, but when that store clerk sees you coming, she still sees a black person first.

It's true. Of course it's true. But when African-Americans, or any minority, begin to talk about issues pertinent to their particular ethnic group, someone (and that someone is usually a white person) starts talking about how the bad old days of racism are long over, and it's time to let go of "identity" politics, or the politics of "victimization." What this is usually code for is a dismissal on the speaker's part of the importance of an issue to the minority who raises it. You might be inclined to think that it's only those who lean to the right who tend to use this argument, but it's been known to surface on the left as well.

Of course, if you think the issue is merely one of whites who are insensitive to the concerns of minorities, and in particular African-Americans, James Wolcott would like you to meet a particular blogger:

What provoked Porretto to raise the rebel flag over his Lincoln-log fort was a vicious rape-torture-murder allegedly committed by a quartet of black men against a young white man and woman; the details are horrifyingly, nightmarishly sadistic. It is a crime to be condemned and its perpetrators should suffer the maximum punishment under law.

But it is a considerable leap from one individual crime to the indictment of an entire race and the specter of civil war. It's not as if black people haven't suffered fatal cruelty at the hands of white perpetrators, such as the recent case of James Byrd Jr., dragged behind a car for miles, his head and right arm severed when his body met a culvert. Friar Porretto might also educate himself by becoming acquainted with the history of lynching as a spectator event in this country.

If you're determined to read the slovenly and racist rantings of the blogger Wolcott links to, by all means go ahead. Poretto is at least nominally a Catholic, but you'd be hard-pressed to find some sort of Christian theology of love on his blog and in his barely subverted calls for a race war. People like Poretto are only the most obvious about it. In fact, much of our political discourse makes barely concealed appeals to inherent racism. For example, there's this Republican political ad. Then there's John McCain's "black" baby. Or the-at best-embarassing response of many conservative pundits and bloggers to the disaster in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. And that's really-seriously-just scratching the surface. On top of that there is what by now appears to be an officially sanctioned and deliberate effort to suppress minority the one arm of the Executive charged with defending those very same voters.

In other words, all the evidence indicates that the issue of race-far from being a dead letter in our society-is really just barely concealed under a bubbling and frequently broken surface of civility.

This post could be much longer of course. All the insightful writings about race in America could probably fill a good-sized library. But only a fool would argue that we're finally starting to get over the damaging effects of racism in this country, and when you hear such an argument, be sure to set your skepticism dial to "high."

No comments: