Friday, April 04, 2008

Honesty and Race

It was forty years ago today that we lost the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was only 39 years old. It is amazing to think about how young he was. He came about at the historical moment when the nation was in transition. Racism was official sanctioned policy, written in law, enforced by agents of the government and non-governmental mobs with equal brutality.

The non-violent movement serving as a lid on the simmering anger that threatened to -- and did -- turn violent was part of the reason explicit racism was removed from the letter of our legal code. This was a victory of historic proportions. It is something to reflect proudly upon.

But, of course, it is not the end of the story. Racism still exists in society, in the law, in the institutions of this culture. Only now, it is not explicit. The lack of overt statement means it hides and can remain as a part of the structure without an author. No one is directly responsible and therefore pointing it out and pointing out the privileges for some that come from it gets dismissed with shock and indignation -- how dare you say I am a racist.

This is what we saw from Geraldine Ferraro, this is what we see in the conservative rhetorical use of the phrase "personal responsibility." No one denies that individuals choose to act the way they do and therefore are responsible for those actions, but it is either naive or disingenuous to assert that those choices do not occur in a social/historical/political/economic context, that sociological facts about the structure and institutions of our society play no role whatsoever in making certain choices seem more or less desirable to those in different contexts. People are responsible for their chosen actions, but those choices are made in part as a result of a situation hat we could all have a hand in shaping for the better if we had the political will.

But that political will requires honesty and this is what is lacking in our current conversation about race. When the Apartheid government of South Africa fell, the response was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many on the ground in South Africa and elsewhere argued that by granting immunity from prosecution to many of those guilty of horrible, racist motivated crimes only to have them confess and give details was trading justice for truth. It was a sacrifice of, an affront to justice.

But it was, in fact, a result of the most wise vision. Unless there was an open and honest confronting of the legacy of racism, there would be no possible way for the future to avoid reliving, rehashing in slanted propagandized ways the old injustices used for nefarious rationalization of future injustices. The new structure would begin infected with the old disease and it would fester beneath the surface.

That is what has happened here. We have never been honest in facing the true extent and horror that was and remains American racism. We think it will just go away by ignoring it. We didn't do it, so why should we have to consider it, apologize for it, act to remedy it? This turns into white resentment which only further entrenches the problem -- something well-known by conservatives who based their Southern strategy on the fact. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan began his campaign for President in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered for daring to try to enfranchise African Americans, and spoke of his support for "state's rights" a thinly veiled term for allowing legally sanctioned racism. There is a reason why Bill Clinton tried to tie Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson after his win in the South Carolina primary. Racism is still here and is still incredibly useful to move people in politics. This is not to say that these folks are endorsing racist policies, but they understand that racism is alive and is useful as a tool. Rather than trying to expose and rid us of it, they would instead employ it for their own gain.

We refuse to be honest. Inner-cities are not safe and white flight and middle-class African American relocation has helped to undermine densely populated areas by undermining the tax base, overwhelmed social services that are understaffed and under resourced, underfunding schools for those who most need good education, indeed who need more resources, smaller classes, more and better trained teachers. And we respond with "personal responsibility," which as everyone knows is code for "not my problem."

We have had in the last couple weeks a call from a Presidential candidate to say "not this time" to the old dodges and authentically bring the question out in the open. Yet, all we get is the same old nonsense. "Why did he stay in that church if it is anti-American?" Could the herring be any redder? Could we just one time try not to find the easy way out and seize a non-issue in order to allow ourselves to not have to be honest about race?

In the forty years since the death of Dr. King much has changed. I taught as an adjunct at Towson University and my cubicle was across from an English prof, an older white woman who was married to an African American English prof. she had a young African American student railing in her office that nothing had changed. Exasperated, she looked at me after he had left, and shaking her head simply said "He has no idea what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the late 50s and early 60s." Things are different. Things, in many ways, are better. We have a leading contender for the highest office in the nation who has an African father less than half a century since the voting rights act.

But, the old disease is still there. We've not lanced the boil. We've not been honest. And until we understand our own history honestly, until we allow ourselves to understand how the crack in the windshield continues to grow even if we are no longer pelting the glass with stones ourselves, it will not get better.