The Tragic Enigma: Racism in Contemporary America

Call it a tragic enigma. In the Tunisian scholar Albert Memmi’s words, “No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still, racism persists, real and tenacious.”

Trent Lott longs for a Thurmond dispensation, a reprisal of the worst of Jim Crow. He’s the brunt of our anger, but what is startling is that Strom Thurmond himself is off limits for condemnation. He was, after all, the Le Pen of the Civil Rights era. Lott is a good enough substitute for our own national failure to oust the Jims who crowed about “segregation now, segregation forever.”

No individual wants to own up to racism after 1965, the nation did not go the road of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and with so little structural change in the offing, if we can get one or two individuals at least we can reaffirm the legal gain of 1965. Racist persists in our structures, held up by powerful men like Lott and Thurmond, but since we don’t have a movement strong enough to erase those structures, Lott will have to do for now.

Here’s what one gets from the newspapers: Lott appears on Black Entertainment Television and promises to support affirmative action and all the other soft programs for racial justice so long opposed by the Party of Lincoln. He says he is not a racist (he even has a few black friends, he tell us without irony), that he was simply a man of his times, that he wants to be a better person, someone like Bush, for instance.

And Bush came out against Lott, we are told by the venal press, because he has an agenda to woo “minorities” to the Republican Party. Lott may resign, sure, but he has the Reps on a barrel – if he goes all the way and leaves the Senate, a Democratic governor will nominate one of his own party to the chamber, and then with a 50-50 divide, another Jeffords can set the right’s calculations off.

But this hides the real story, even while Lott must go.

Call it chance. Lott’s loose lips move just as Bush appoints his new economic team, filled with representatives of a genteel racism that does not get any comment from the media. William Donaldson comes from Aetna and John Snow from CSX, two firms, alongside Fleet Boston Financial Corporation, to be charged in the first reparations lawsuit (filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York on 1 April 2002).

Donaldson and Snow are two suits who represent the “racism from above,” just as Lott represents the “racism from below.” Even as Lott is all powerful now, his racist roots tell a different story than those of Snow-Donaldson or Aetna-CSX. It is therefore worth a glance at these two forms of racism, both deserving of condemnation, when there is lots being said about Lott and nothing about either reparations or the ongoing racism of CSX-Aetna.

Lott is easy. Raised in a working-class family whose destiny was not that far from other black Mississippians, white supremacy allowed Lott and his confreres to lord it over black folk and carve out success for themselves on the backs of blacks. His mother, Iona Watson Lott, once wrote to a local pro-integration journalist, “I hope you not only get a hole through your office door but through your stupid head.”

Her brother, Arnie Watson, headed the White Citizens Council in Carroll County and told the media, in 1999, “This mixing races, the Lord didn’t intend for it to be that way.” Lott’s mother worked as a teacher at the Calvary School, while his father moved from a hubcap factory to driving a bus to sharecropping.

Racism is not simply prejudice, but it is also crucially about the social relations between people. In the instance of “racism from below,” it is the anti-black racism of working-class whites who frequently live beside blacks, and whose economic lives are intertwined in an everyday fashion. Lott is a latterday Andrew Johnson, whose life, W. E. B. Du Bois argued, was

“the tragedy of American prejudice made flesh: so that the man born of narrow circumstances, a rebel against economic privilege, died with the conventional ambition of a poor white to be the associate and benefactor of monopolists, planters and slave drivers.” Lott didn’t have Johnson’s compassion about economic injustice, but he shared everything else with a man who was one vote away from impeachment.

Lott has got to go.

What about our indictments against Donaldson (Aetna) and Snow (CSX), the one to head the SEC and the other the Department of Treasury?

(1) Aetna. In the 2002 lawsuit, the plaintiff’s Complaint notes that Aetna “actually insured slave owners against the loss of their human chattel. Aetna knew the horrors of slave life as is evident in a rider through which the company declined to pay the premiums for slaves who were lynched or worked to death or who committed suicide. Aetna, therefore, unjustly profited from the institution of slavery.”

The past is prologue, because Aetna’s practices in its hometown of Hartford, CT., offer evidence of contemporary racism. The Aetna plantation formed part of the vast insurance empire that took up residence in this city. When things looked up, Aetna not only hired local, but it also began to buy up more and more residential property for its employees and for its expansion.

In 1950, over ninety percent of the city’s residents claimed to be white, but this was to change soon after as Hartford became a model for “white flight.” In the late 1970s, Puerto Ricans and blacks took the demographic lead in the city, with whites now only a third of the population. Aetna, the benevolent employer of whites, shifted its priorities in this city of color.

In 1988, Aetna started the QFR program, Quick-Flexible-Right, its own version of downsizing. In 1992, Aetna cut close to five thousand jobs, the opening salvo against the city that continues to this day. When things started to slide, Aetna (with Donaldson as the chair of the Board) sold its property to slumlords from New York (as reported in the Hartford Advocate in 2001), and slashed medical coverage for the poor, as well as cut the lower-end jobs at Aetna.

Meanwhile, Donaldson himself did well during his tenure. He announced to shareholders in late 2000 that his slash and burn management had saved Aetna, he watched the share price rise, he retired with a compensation package of almost $20 million, then, ten days later, Aetna’s share price collapsed (by eighteen percent on one day). With its legacy in slavery, Aetna’s present begs all manner of questions of racism, ones that do not get asked under cover of the white sheets of Lott.

(2) CSX: The 2001 lawsuit says of CSX that the railroad giant runs lines “that were constructed or run, at least in part, by slave labor.” John Snow is the well-named CSX head who will now run the Treasury department while drawing close to two and a half million dollars from CSX each year.

To assess CSX’s contemporary problem with racism, we may want to take a collective trip to Gentilly, a section of New Orleans that is home to a working-class black community. In 1987, a CSX car exploded near the area and threw butadiene gas into the air, forcing the evacuation of two hundred city blocks. CSX denied a role in the tragedy and refused to compensate the residents.

A court case dragged on, and a decade later, the jurors awarded the neighborhood $3.4 billion, at the same time as they declared that racism probably had something to do with the location of this car in the Gentilly section of the city. The railroad company has been prey to several environmental racism lawsuits, since it carries toxic materials into neighborhoods of color, where racist city governments locate the dumps.

Then there is the case of illegal solvent use by CSX as documented by Team Solvent (for the Louisville Courier-Journal), who showed that the railroad firms used toxic solvents to degrease dirty diesel locomotives on the cheap financially, but expensive to the human body. This under Snow’s watch.

The racism of CSX and Aetna, unlike that of Lott, is the “racism from above.” Born in the 16th century out of the intolerance that predates it, racism masqueraded as biological difference, as a way to expropriate the means of life from certain people. These people without resources now came to labor in unenviable work conditions, treated as animals, as chattel, for the enrichment of some, mainly those on or from the continent of Europe as well as the United States.

With abolition in 1865 and civil rights in 1965 came the denial of this history, the deflation of the role of race to prejudice, and the extension of white power and privilege hoarded during less liberal times.

CSX (Snow) and Aetna (Donaldson) are emblems of this “racism from above,” heinous in its implications because it hides behind “private property” and “good breeding,” behind multi-tokenism and political triangulation. Lott has got to go, but what about Donaldson/Snow, Aetna/CSX?

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