by Barry Edelson


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Racism Just Won't Die

Two years ago during the presidential campaign, I expressed some uncharacteristic optimism about the improving state of race relations. At the time, it seemed as though America had truly turned a page on its tortuous history, and the decisive election victory of the junior senator from Illinois a few months later appeared to validate the growing consensus that America had indeed become a more tolerant society.

However, the "national discussion" on race has subsequently devolved into farce, in concert with a generally downward spiral in all political discourse in our nation. In 2008 it was not wrong to believe that the majority of Americans no longer harbored deep racial prejudice, or at least not so deeply ingrained as to forbid casting a ballot for a black candidate, however qualified. In one sense expectations were low, because conventional wisdom had long held that the polls typically overestimate support for a black candidate, with many voters reluctant to give voice to their prejudices. This clearly turned out not to be so widespread a phenomenon as to render the polls unreliable. But no one seemed to have anticipated that the election of Barack Obama would unleash a torrent of racial abuse on the airwaves and in cyberspace, with much of it of an appallingly puerile nature.

What is perhaps most dispiriting is the contrast of the President's mature and intelligent approach to the issue of race, most notably in his Philadelphia speech during the primaries, with the adolescent response of his detractors. Granted that Obama's speech, though it reflected the thoughtfulness of a lifetime of contemplation, was also politically motivated, timed quite obviously to put out the fire lit by the incendiary Rev. Jeremiah Wright. At the time, it seemed as though Wright, with his creed of paranoia and barely discernible logic, was deeply out of step with the rest of the nation, including most of black America. After Obama's seminal address, for which he was widely praised for treating his audience like adults, and especially after Wright's subsequent implosion on the national stage, it was easy to believe that the public consensus had shifted. The tired and useless black-white debate of "You did us wrong" versus "Get over it already" was suddenly replaced with "Quiet down, we're trying to have a serious discussion over here."

But who exactly was having this discussion? At what point have racial stereotypes ceased to be the daily fare of shock jocks and other grenade throwers? How many serious public figures secretly harbored racist views while paying lip service to equality only for the sake of their electoral prospects? In this insipid era of political correctness, even an obliquely racist comment can carry a huge political price. The list of victims is long and hardly insignificant. Within a short time in the 2000s alone, Trent Lott lost his leadership position in the senate and George Allen's political career went up in flames, both the victims of three failings: deviation from the acceptable lexicon of race relations, an inability to see beyond the white faces of the people standing in front of them, and a lack of appreciation for the new technology of ubiquitous news coverage. In other words, they didn't know when to shut up or who they were talking to. Even some nonpolitical actors have had to face down a chorus of boos. It was widely noted at the time of Don Imus' inane comments about the Rutgers girls' basketball team that offensive commentary of this sort emerged from his mouth almost continuously, not to mention from the mouths of numerous other persons with access to a microphone and a radio transmitter. While the adults were having a quiet and honest discussion in the living room, even finding ways to disagree without offending one another, the children were still making a ruckus in the family room.

There are no doubt many complex reasons why the voices of intolerance, so long suppressed, have re-emerged with such vehemence and volume since Obama's election. There is a portion of the white population that clearly feels threatened by its loss of pre-eminence, which partly explains why the forces of political reaction, which were so silent during the Bush years, have gained such traction since 2009. The overwhelmingly white Tea Party movement would have far greater credibility if they had taken to the streets to protest the huge deficits amassed by Republicans in the previous decade. Race is surely not their only motivation, but there is no other plausible explanation for the constant refrain, "I want my country back." Is it merely a coincidence that this insidious phrase was never heard when white conservatives were firmly in control of all three branches of government?

A disturbing reminder of the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes can be found at an exhibit on the civil rights movement currently at the International Center for Photography in New York. It traces the history of how images and words have been shaped in many media — movies and television, journalism and photography, business and advertising — both to affirm black stereotypes as well as to counter them. While few of the images in the exhibit are new or surprising, seeing so many examples of blatant bigotry concentrated in one place makes the viewer feel deeply ashamed. Even familiar images become difficult to look at. Perhaps the single most offensive object on display is a product called "Zulu-Lulu": a set of six swizzle sticks showing the naked profile of a black women progressing from age 15 to 40, with each stick depicting the woman as increasingly overweight and unattractive. The copy on the cardboard package reads, "Look what a few years will do to Lulu" and "Will make your guests 'bust' out laughing", with an oversized pair of leering eyes in the two letter o's in the word "look". It is so profoundly disgusting that I would deign to display an image of it here. It brings to mind the deathless phrase "the banality of evil": so extensive was the false pride of white superiority that it infected everything from the meting out of justice to the advertising in the back of comic books. Zulu-Lulu is not some relic of the antebellum South, but was produced in the 1950s, in the same era as Brown vs. Board of Education, and therefore in the living memory of tens of millions of Americans.

It is not difficult to trace a path from such juvenile expressions of racial hatred a few decades ago to the rantings today of the lower elements of the airwaves and blogosphere. We are witnessing a case of arrested development on a large scale, both in the individual and cultural senses, as people who have never quite shed their prejudices in the first place find a new outlet for their unfounded anxieties. The election of our first black president has indeed heralded the beginning of the end of the era of political correctness, but not in the way we would have wanted or expected. Apparently having a black man in the White House makes some white people think that the balance sheet has been wiped clean, that the after-effects of slavery, Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan can be erased from our historical memory, and that they no longer have to pretend even to be polite to black people or sensitive to their feelings because they are no longer a powerless minority. Quite the opposite: it is now white people who can claim to be the downtrodden victims of discrimination.

Though we can console ourselves with the fact that Barack Obama did indeed win the election in 2008 (we did not imagine it) and without arousing a direct call to arms, we should be duly alarmed by many people rushing to add to their household arsenals, taking to streets to demand the restoration of rights that were never in fact taken away, and regurgitating the words of self-serving blowhards who are no longer merely annoying in their lack of circumspection and humanity. It took only a small minority of miscreants in Rwanda in the 1990s, repeatedly calling their enemies "cockroaches", to unleash a genocidal storm that has not fully abated to this day. It evidently took only a small band of supporters of a deposed autocrat to instigate a tide of ethnic murder in Kyrgyzstan only last week. It matters very much what evil people say, and it matters even more that large numbers of decent people stand up and speak out against them.

June 20, 2010


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