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White Supremacy in Dixie


Manning Marable  

How

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.

 My

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.

 A

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.

 The

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

market place.

 Don’t

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.

 But

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!

 What

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.

 In

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

"neo-Confederacy movement."

 Texas

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.

 Why

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.

 America

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 . . . ."