Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How Different Is It?

It was 150 years ago today that Fort Sumter was attacked starting the Civil War. The war over slavery was indicative of a problematic view of race that we have had in this nation since it began. We hold up the first African-American President as evidence that things have changed.

But in a poll published just last week by Public Policy Polling, a widely respected polling organization, when they asked a representative sample of 400 likely Republican voters in Mississippi whether interracial marriage should be legal or illegal, a 46% plurality answered illegal.

I remember being an adjunct at Towson University (back when it was Towson State University) and having a cubicle across from an English prof who had an African-American student in her cubicle during "office" hours who was loudly railing that nothing had changed in terms of race in America. She emerged after the conversation shaking her head. She looked at me and said that this kid could have no idea what it was like to be in an interracial marriage in the 50s. Things, she said, had changed.

The question is how much and in what way? We love to point to our first African-American President and say that things are different. But are they? On the 150th anniversary of the start of the war to protect slave owners' rights, do we still have the same sorts of racist views, only we deny them in public because they have become unfashionable outside of Mississippi Republican circles? Do we have better code words for the same ideas or have the biases themselves changed? Are they decreased or more subtle? Has racism become institutional instead of individual? Have the biases turned more towards class, than race or is race still the issue? how different are things?