far has America actually progressed toward more constructive race relations?
Judging by some recent events, not much. During this year’s legal
holiday marking the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I was invited to
speak at a small, predominantly white Southern college. For decades, this school
had been racially segregated, like other all-white public educational
institutions. The college’s first black faculty member had been hired only in
the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the initial reception I received was friendly and
positive, from administrators, faculty and representatives of the student
government association, who had sponsored my visit. Nothing up to that point had
prepared me for what I would soon encounter that evening.
lecture that night was before an audience of perhaps 500 people, consisting
mostly of students and a significant number of African Americans from the
surrounding community. I spoke about the enduring legacy of Martin, the
necessity to achieve social justice, and the urgent need for constructive
dialogue across America’s racial chasm. As I concluded, most of the audience
responded favorably to the message, but many sat in silence.
white male student jumped out of his seat even before the audience had stopped
clapping, and raised his hand to ask the first question. When I acknowledged
him, the white student launched into an attack against affirmative action, which
was characterized as "reverse discrimination." He insisted that both
he and many of his friends had lost scholarships and jobs to unqualified
minorities. I replied that statistically less than two percent of all university
scholarships were "race-based," that is, designated for blacks and
Hispanics. Affirmative action was necessary because job discrimination was still
rampant, and blacks frequently were unfairly charged more for goods and services
than whites. I cited one major study illustrating that blacks who negotiated and
purchased automobiles at white car dealerships were charged significantly more
than whites who bought the identical cars.
white student was unimpressed and unapologetic. His precise words were unclear,
but his essential response was, "then the blacks ought to shop somewhere
else!" Suddenly, a significant number of white students burst into
applause, and a few even cheered. Surprised and saddened, I quickly responded
that this discrimination was illegal and morally outrageous, and that blacks
shouldn’t have to shop in another country in order to be treated fairly in the
misunderstand my point here. As a middle-aged black man, I spent many summers in
Dixie during the 1960s. I experienced Jim Crow segregation firsthand, and white
racism is hardly a new phenomenon to me.
the white students at this formerly segregated college had no personal knowledge
of what Jim Crow was about. They never saw black people being denied the right
to vote, or signs posted on public restrooms reading "white" and
"colored." Yet they felt no hesitation, no restraint, to proclaim
their prerogatives as whites, over and above any claims that black people made
for equality. In effect, this was "white supremacy": blind to the
historical dynamics and social consequences of racial oppression, jealous of any
benefits achieved by blacks from civil rights agitation, and outraged by the
suggestion that racial minorities should be compensated for their exploitation.
The twisted logic of white supremacy is that reformers who champion racial
equality and social justice are the "real racists." And as I
subsequently learned, a number of white students were e-mailing administrators
and others the next morning, after my talk, demanding to know why this black
"racist" was invited to speak at their campus!
particularly struck me by this incident was the deep anger displayed by some
whites in the audience. One can disagree with someone else’s political
perspective, yet behave in a civil manner. Something I had said, or perhaps,
what I represented, had generated white rage bordering on irrational hatred.
This same kind of white bigotry has been at the heart of the recent public
controversy over the flying of the Confederate battle flag over the South
Carolina statehouse. When the NAACP called for the flag’s removal, State Senator
Arthur Ravenel referred to the organization as "the National Association of
Retarded People." When this racist remark generated widespread outrage,
Ravenel apologized to "retarded people" for mistakenly linking them
with the NAACP.
January this year, 50,000 people gathered at the state capital in Columbia,
South Carolina, to call for the flag’s removal. But you’d never guess this from
the hypocritical and opportunistic behavior of the Republican Party’s
presidential candidates. Arizona Senator John McCain first described the
Confederate battle flag as "a symbol of racism and slavery," but soon
reversed himself claiming it was also "a symbol of heritage." McCain’s
top strategist in the state, Richard M. Quinn, is a proud leader of the
Governor George W. Bush’s response to the controversy revealed his political
cowardice and moral bankruptcy. Bush refused to demand that Ravenel apologize.
He held a political rally at Bob Jones University, a racist institution that
forbids interracial dating on campus, and is openly hostile to Roman Catholics.
Back in Texas, Bush has done nothing to prohibit the widespread displays of
Confederate flags in state buildings and even public schools.
have McCain and Bush refused to condemn a flag that journalist Brent Staples has
described as "a symbol of choice among neo-Nazis, skinheads and other
bigots?" For the same reason that the white students became outraged when I
talked frankly about the history of white privilege and racial discrimination.
Many white Americans refuse to honestly examine their history, because if they
did, they would have to confront the moral equivalent of the Nazis who ran
Germany’s death camps. They would have to acknowledge the vast murders and rapes
by their foreparents, and their own complicity in profiting from today’s system
of racial injustice. It is far easier to "boo" a black historian
lecturing about racial equality, or to denounce the NAACP as
"retarded." By taking away their rebel flag, we may force these whites
to finally come to terms with their own oppressive history, and themselves.
as a nation has been essentially "silent" about its racist history. As
legal scholar Patricia J. Williams eloquently stated in the Nation recently,
"It would be better to feel ourselves unsettled by the full truth of these
historical horrors before we commend ourselves for having buried the past. As we
peer into the unmarked graves of the ghosts that haunt America still, perhaps
the path to peace lies not only in dreaming a better future for black children
but in awakening white Americans to their own history . . . ."