Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 09, 2018

A date little noted

On this date in 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant. This did not entirely end the Civil War -- some small battles and skirmishes continued and other elements of the Confederate army did not surrender until as late as June. Nevertheless this date is usually considered to signal the end of any hope for the confederacy.

It was not, as it turned out, the end of the racial caste system in the south, or even in reality the end of slavery. Through a campaign of terrorism, the white ruling caste in the south re-established supremacy in the decade following the war; deprived the freed slaves of the vote; and re-established what amounted to slavery in the form of sharecropping and prison labor.

The seminal event in the Civil Rights movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, happened while I was an infant. I was just coming into consciousness of the world as the movement grew into widespread grassroots rebellion against Jim Crow. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, I was in high school, and able to appreciate the significance of these events.

I grew up in New England, in a middle class and liberal cultural milieu. I attended a progressive college and worked for some years in movement jobs and then for United Way and minority community based organizations, went to graduate school at Brandeis. I truly believed that the legacy of slavery and white supremacy was fading, because I saw little of it in my world. And truth be told, it was suppressed in public discourse. Yes, the Republican party depended on white tribalism and racism to maintain the loyalty of its voters, but the message was sotto voce.

No more. Once Barack Obama committed the unforgivable offense of presidenting while black, the profound current of racism in American society resurfaced. Mark Phillips, writing for Salon, had a different experience. In the town where he grew up, racism was completely normative. He writes,

Some claim that Faulkner was mistaken and the past really is past, racism in contemporary America little more than a rusty whip handle unearthed at the site of a Mississippi plantation. I’ve heard that the election of our first African American president was irrefutable evidence that racism in the United States has been reduced to a group of feeble old men peering watery-eyed through holes in soiled and tattered white sheets. I’ve heard from white people that fear of racism is as irrational as fear of ghosts. It is hoped they learned otherwise when white supremacists, young and old, men and women, many openly armed, marched and rioted in Charlottesville in August 2017. I hope so, but I doubt it.
I've learned.


Justin Cohen said...

So true ... racism is alive and well (and, to a large extent, unchallenged) in the USA. The problem in exposing it is a difficult one because, short of reproducing an experiment society-wide like the one Jane Elliott did in 1968, how do we teach people who "don't get it?" How do we teach people about the existence of something so endemic to their worldview that they don't even know it exists, and that it exists in them?

Gay Boy Bob said...

I think Mr. Cohen has exposed one of the big flaws of the term in that if you can't define it, you can't teach it.

kathy a. said...

This is a wonderful post. Thank you.

I think people learn when they hear the experiences of others -- experiences different than the ones in their own small, constricted world growing up. When they are able to admire and befriend people who do not look like them; whose parents and grandparents had vastly different opportunities, and the things happening in their neighborhoods growing up were so devastating as to put one's own parents' perspective to absolute shame. At least, that's how it worked for me. I tried hard to teach my children differently than I was taught.

Meet and talk to and respect more people who have lived different lives. That's what we all should be about.

Mark said...

Racism is pretty easy to define. It's just judging people based on their race. The problem is not that it's hard to define, the problem is that many people refuse to admit that they do it, when they very clearly do. I'm sure they all have friends who are (fill in the blank) but they still judge people of that race. Of course, race has about as much meaning as dog breeds. If the parents were of that race/breed, then the offspring are of that race/breed. In the case of African Americans in the US, if anyone anywhere in your ancestry could be proved to be of AA descent, then you were of that race. Kind of like the Nazis did with Judaism. I read an article on Slate about the Briggs Meyer "personality type" tests. One of the developers wrote a detective novel in the '30's in which southerners preferred to kill themselves rather than face the possibility that people would find out that they had a black ancestor. That's the way it was. You might not believe (or maybe you would) what people here in Georgia used to say about blank people, as if it were a fact based on scientific research or a law handed down by god. That was in the 1960's when I wan in school. Do they still say those things? Probably not much in public. Now they say them about other ethnic groups, like Mexicans or Indians (not American Indians, at least not in the South), or Chinese.

Gay Boy Bob said...

Racism is pretty easy to define. It's just judging people based on their race.

Actually, Mark, I think you're the most honest person here.

And while I completely agree with you, I also think that many liberals would take issue with your definition of racism. For starters, it would include many institutional government-funded programs and mandates such as contract set asides, race hiring preferences and Affirmative Action both in government and in institutions of higher learning.

So, while I applaud your honesty and objectivity, I think your definition is not mainstream liberal thought. If were, we'd be talking about the racism of blacks, hispanics as well as whites.

We're not.

Justin Cohen said...

Mark is epistemologically correct. It's easy to define racism, like it's easy to define "tree," "flower," or "breath." What is not possible is to talk about racism with a racist like Gay Boy Bob. Or much else, for that matter. Some people just take all the wrong points and lessons from intelligent discourse because they're intellectually incapacitated--and they don't know it. GBB is such a person. Donald Trump is also like that.

I think J. K. Rowling's commencement address at Harvard in 2008 is an excellent video to watch, because it explains the power of the human imagination to learn compassion from the experience of others--as Kathy mentions, above--IF our eyes and ears are open. If we do not have malevolent inclinations. But for racists and other ignorant people, learning and perception are impossible. I guess such people just have to stay at the front of Aristotle's cave, watching shadows that they believe are reality--no matter what anybody else says. Ignorance is defined as "lack of knowledge or information." For some people, that lack is willful obstinate and/or willful.

Gay Boy Bob said...

"Some people just take all the wrong points and lessons from intelligent discourse because they're intellectually incapacitated--and they don't know it."

Mr. Cohen seems to be saying is there can be no objectivity when it comes to determining if racism objective universal set of rules for everyone. If one expects objectivity, then they just don't "get it" and they must be a horrible person.

People expect to be treated the same and instead feel the rules of "racism" are arbitrary and biased. If you're of a member of a favored group or may be politically helpful to a favored group, your racism is unrecognized.

For that reason alone, making progress toward eradicating racism from our culture will be difficult. There will always be resentment when one group is clearly treated differently than another.

Mark said...

The United States and its citizens, including some in the white, privileged class who are now wallowing in self pity at the loss of their privileged status, put certain categories of people at a great disadvantage in the past and continue in many ways to do so today. Undoing that disadvantage is not a matter of assuring anyone that we won't discriminate against them from now on. A debt is owed. Honest, decent people will pay that debt without whining and complaining.

Gay Boy Bob said...

Those who agree with Mark and advocate for special privileges for categories of people who historically been disadvantaged should be honest about what they're trying to accomplish.

But they aren't.

Instead, they speak of free speech as long as it doesn't disadvantage their favored groups. If it does, that speech needs to be shut down.

Freedom of assembly and public protest as long as it's not someone they disagree with politically.

Equality, as long as that "equality" advantages who they think should benefit at the expense of other groups.

Saying you support all of these American values and then compromising them because someone is not the preferred color or doesn't hold your political views demonstrates a stark double standard.

Some may agree with your penchant to compromise the rights of others "for the greater good", some will not.

But all will know it's dishonest.

Justin Cohen said...

Every time Gay Boy Bob makes the mistake of adding comments to this blog site, he demonstrates the perils of failing to heed Mark Twain's advice:

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt."

There is no doubt about our anonymous contributor. He just doesn't learn.