OK, I was on the road and I somehow missed this: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proclaims Confederate History Month, for which he later (sort of) apologizes. The President of the United States (psst! he’s BLACK, so OBVIOUSLY, he has a racist agenda) upbraids the governor for leaving slavery out of the equation. Certain right-wing pundits kvetch: “My God, they’re talking about slavery AGAIN? Why can’t they let it go?”, oblivious to the inability of others to let go of a cause that one could reasonably consider sedition. There is an article in Salon which addresses this. I was particularly fond of this comment: “History has a peculiar habit of becoming revisionist drivel when it comes to culture & politics. Romanticized to the point of nausea, even dark days are brightened with an artificial hue.”
The best discussion of this phenomenon appeared even before the McDonnell proclamation. Once more, I must point you to Bill Moyers while I still can; he’s going off the air soon. Specifically, the show broadcast on the anniversary weekend of Martin Luther King’s death, which reflected on his legacy.
“Two talented lawyers who’ve dedicated their careers to fighting inequality, Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, join Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL to examine justice and injustice in America 42 years after King’s death.”
Specifically to this point about race in America:
BRYAN STEVENSON: Other countries that have confronted historic problems of racism and gross ethnic conflict have recognized that to overcome that, there has to be a period of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, they had to go through truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, there had to be truth and reconciliation. In this country, we’ve never had truth and we’ve never had reconciliation. And so, the day to day reality for the clients where I work, the people I work with is one that’s still hurt, angry, broken.
I keep hoping for that “conversation about race” we’ve been promised, so we CAN “get over it.” This seemed obviously to be great opportunity. Yet I’ve seen from more than one quarter that the idea about bringing up the slavery issue is merely liberals being (eye roll) “politically correct”. Not to be confused with “historically correct”, or “factually correct.”
The lawyers make some other interesting points. Much of the conversation after Obama’s election was that “we HAVE overcome”, that the struggle with racism was over, something I always thought was a lot of bunk.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER:…I think individual black achievement today masks a disturbing, underlying racial reality. You know, to a significant extent…affirmative action, seeing African Americans…go to Harvard and Yale, become CEOs and corporate lawyers…causes us all to marvel what a long way we have come.
But…much of the data indicates that African Americans today, as a group, are not much better off than they were back in 1968. When Martin Luther King delivered his…”The Other America” speech.
And interesting observation about terrorism – and some, though by no means all of these groups who idealize the antebellum South, seem to be attracted to a violent fringe element in this country.
BRYAN STEVENSON:…older people come up to me, and they say, “Mr. Stevenson, I’m tired of hearing how we’re talking about– we’re dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history.” They were antagonized by the rhetoric around 9/11. They would come up to me and they’d say, “Mr. Stevenson, I grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed. We had to worry about being lynched. We had to live in communities close to each other, because the threat of violence was constant…
Ms. Alexander has written a book about The New Jim Crow, not that dissimilar to the old Jim Crow.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: …just a couple decades after the collapse of the old Jim Crow system, a new system of racial control emerged in the United States. Today, people of color are targeted by law enforcement for relatively minor, nonviolent, often drug-related offenses. The types of crimes that occur all the time on college campuses, where drug use is open and notorious. That occur in middle class suburban communities without much notice, right?
Targeted, often at very young ages, for these relatively minor offenses. Arrested, branded felons, and then ushered into a parallel social universe, in which they can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in many of the ways in which African Americans were discriminated against during the Jim Crow era…
The Reagan Administration actually hired staff whose job it was to publicize crack babies, crack dealers in inner city communities, in the hope that these images would build public support for the drug war and persuade Congress to devote millions of more dollars to the war.
So that it was possible to convert the war from a rhetorical one into a literal one. It was part of a larger political strategy. And once the media became saturated and our public consciousness began to associate drug use and drug crime with African Americans, it’s no surprise that law enforcement efforts became concentrated in communities defined by race as well.
BRYAN STEVENSON: The reality is, is that in poor communities, the police do raids all the time. I’ve worked in communities where the SWAT team comes and they put up a screen fence around the public housing project. They do searches. They stop people coming in and out. There are these presumptions of criminality that follow young men of color.
And whenever they’re someplace they don’t belong, they’re stopped and they’re targeted. And so– and because you don’t have the resources actually to create privacy and security, you’re much more vulnerable to prosecution… we could do the same thing, but middle class communities, elite schools in this country would not tolerate drug raids from federal law enforcement officers and police. Even if there’s drug use.
And so, there is this way in which resources and economic status actually makes you more vulnerable to criminal arrest and prosecution. And it becomes a self-fulfilling story. So that when I walk down the street in the wrong kinds of clothes, if I’m in the “wrong place,” there’s a presumption that I’m up to something criminal.
It goes on, but the point is that the “good old days” of the 1950s, or the 1850s, weren’t that good for some. Certainly the antebellum South holds no warmth in my heart. The lawyers on Moyers also describe how poor and middle-class whites are manipulated to see blacks as, if not the enemy, then at least people to be suspicious of, a deliberate manipulation going back to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy”, then perfected by Ronald Reagan. They argue that the huge growthin the prison population makes us less safe, not more.
I mention all of these other issues because I believe these aren’t just individual events, bloopers of a thoughtless politician or pundit, but rather a pattern of racial insensitivity that needs to be continually looked at in the broader context.