Sunday, January 13, 2008

The evolution of racism

That attack on Ron Paul by Jolly James got me to thinking.

We live in a time when a racist remark will not only end your career - not only will the mere accusation of a racist remark end your career - but an accusation of a remark being maybe sort of kind of racist will threaten your career. And I had no idea that "kid" or "fairy tale" could be racist. Maybe "kid" is sort of like "boy," but this is all beyond me.

I know several people (well, I know them online - most real people don't know or care) who used to support Ron Paul with enthusiasm, but turned a quick 180 when the newsletter scandal was "exposed" yet again. They seem to understand that Paul never wrote those words, simply because they had heard him enough and read him enough to know he couldn't have been the source. But they quickly say they can't support him because if he couldn't oversee a newsletter with his name on it, how is he qualified for president? This astounds me. You're disqualified from holding office because you trusted the wrong people with a cheaply printed rag? I've trusted people when I shouldn't have. But I learned the lesson from it when it bit me, and I am quite sure that Ron Paul learned it too.

So I observed a little, as I often do when I am puzzled, and I notice that those who did this 180 are young - in their 20's, maybe early 30's. And I suspect (note the word suspect) that this has more to do with avoiding the stigma of failing to condemn racism than it does with a sincere, honest belief that Ron Paul is too incompetent to run a country because he didn't fully supervise a newsletter decades ago.

How the world has changed; and it didn't do it overnight. We didn't have a country full of people suddenly wake up one morning and say, "I was wrong. Black people aren't inferior, and shouldn't be treated as property, and segregated and not allowed to vote. I will change my ways and be a better person." Somewhere in the transition, many people had to struggle with what they had been taught and shown by example, and then figure out that it had to stop.

When I was a young lad, I attended a family reunion and had the pleasure of talking to a nice little old lady, frail and slow, who had been born in the 1800's. She shared two family stories with me which I enjoyed more than many of the others, because they were so vivid and so far in the past. It seems I had two slave owners in my family tree. The first was a plantation owner, and therefore was probably the only rich person I've ever been related to. But he was different. His policy was to buy slaves and immediately free them - and offer them employment on his plantation. Other land owners thought that was a little nuts, but I'll bet he was richer in many ways than his neighbors. Nevertheless, I think maybe it took a little courage to do things a different way.

The other one was not so rich. He was walking home one afternoon, and came upon a man beating the living crap out of a little boy, whom he "owned," and therefore assumed the right to discipline as he pleased. My ancestor asked him why he was doing that, and asked him to please stop it. "He ain't worth two bits! You want him, I'll sell him to you!" So he bought him, for the price of 25¢, and took him home to take care of him. The story is that he intended to find out how to draw up the papers to free him the next day, but the boy died of his injuries before morning.

Now, my elderly story-teller used the word "nigra" as she related it, and by today's standards, she would be accused of racism, as the word is too close to the N word (which must never be spoken except on a rap song). I don't know how racist she actually was, but she no doubt had some viewpoints that had carried over from the late 1800's, when she learned most of her world view. But she was a kind woman, and gentle, and soft spoken.

My earliest memories are from the 1950's, when I was five years old in Savannah GA. My friends gave me my earliest experiences with racism as it existed then. A person who drank a soft drink from a bottle the wrong way was accused of "nigger-lipping." In fact, you shouldn't even drink straight from the bottle, because "you never know if a nigger might've drunk from that bottle sometime." One was told to be careful, or a "nigger might get you." We didn't have to be cautioned not to play with the "colored kids" - they weren't allowed anywhere near us, and none of us ever even thought about it. (This wasn't my parents saying any of this, by the way). What you have to realize is that segregation was the prevailing thought. Anyone suggesting that it ought to be different was way out on the fringes, and it would have taken a great deal of courage to say such a thing out loud - such attitudes could get you beaten up, or it could ruin your career. It took courage to express such things.

On to the 60's. Now I'm a teenager living in Texas. Racism in Texas is weaker, and a person would no longer be criticized for suggesting that blacks ought to be treated no differently than anyone else. He might get an argument, yes, but he would get one back in most company, at least in the circles I ran with. Now if he suggests that a mixed marriage might be a good idea, he would be thoroughly criticized, so that would take some courage, but the topic seldom comes up.

The riots in LA are still to come. We consider Bill Cosby's comedy albums to be the best stuff ever, and we want to be like him. The first TV kiss between a white man and a black woman (on Star Trek) is on its way, and I see the scene and don't even notice its significance for some reason. (I guess it took some courage for the producers of the show, but apparently it didn't hurt William Shatner's career. He would have to wait for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for that).

A few years later. I get my first job with a paycheck and deductions. I work as a bus boy in the Airmen's Club at Sheppard AFB. Now, the club isn't supposed to be segregated, but there is a room just off the main room but angled so that most of it isn't seen unless you stand in the doorway. The black airmen congregate there. Now, here is where you younger bloggers will have no memory of the way things were. There were riots in those days. There was white on black violence, and there was black on white violence. Either way, there were angry people on both sides of the color divide. And some nights, nobody wanted to go into that room, because it was full of angry young black men with lots of beer bottles on their tables. My co-workers refused to go, and it fell to me to cruise that room with my bus cart. So I went in and we all held hands and sang Kumbaya together.

Like hell we did. I bussed the tables, and I was scared. Really scared. I heard "Clean up that puke you little white f---!" Now, my point is not that it took courage to go into that room, though I assure you it did. My point is that it took courage to hold onto race-tolerant attitudes. It took courage not to absolutely hate them. If you don't believe that, wait until you fear for your safety or your life and see how much love you can work up for your fellow man.

Fast forward a few years, to the 80's or 90's. It's so much easier these days, when I can work in the same place as black men, when I have their backs and they have mine, when we can be in the same play at the community theatre and forget our lines and bail each other out so the show goes on. I can have a genuine friendship with a mixed-race couple and nobody cares about it. Things have really improved.

Fast forward a little further, to this century. A blogger, one of my favorites, changes her mind about Ron Paul because of those damn newsletters, feels betrayed by him, turns against him, does that 180 I was talking about - even though he is the only man running who shares her political stance. And she gets a comment complimenting her on her "courage" and honesty. Courage? COURAGE?? For sitting at a nice warm keyboard in 2008, when racism is on the fringes, when racism will ruin your career, when even the mere suggestion of what might be considered maybe sort of kind of racism will ruin your career or get you beat up?

The world has changed, indeed. But it was a relatively fast evolution, not a revolution, though taking place in one lifespan, and I think it's a little late to cash in on having courage for being open minded. I think maybe these days it may take more courage to risk being a target of race baiting bigots like Al Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan or James Kirchick. Maybe with a little more evolution, we can achieve tolerance without demagogues.

Note: I am not accusing Becky of claiming to have courage. It's more like the person leaving the comment is implying that, as he attempts to practice his special brand of patronizing for political purposes.

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