Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mutations of racism

I didn't join in blog-against-racism day, mainly because I didn't feel I had anything to say that others would not say more usefully. But since last week I have been thinking about some changes in racism I have seen in my lifetime.

In the fall of 1960, I was part of a group of University of Texas students who were trying to integrate a couple of movie theaters right off the campus. Our campaign lasted a year, and was successful. We felt good about that.

The good feeling began to evaporate, though. By 1964 when I graduated, John Kennedy had been assassinated, Medgar Evers had been assassinated, Bull Connor had turned dogs and firehoses on civil rights demonstrators, four young black children had been blown up in a church in Birmingham, and in the summer of 1964 three civil rights workers about my age were murdered in Mississippi. The murder of Martin Luther King was still to come, as was what seemed at the time (and still does) to be the fairly systematic murder of black militants all over the country by the police in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But in the summer of 1964, I made a visit to my parents, who on account of my father's work had moved to a small town called Laplace in Louisiana, upriver from New Orleans. I read a little about the place before I went there. It was where the largest slave revolt in American history started, in 1811. About 500 poorly armed slaves marched down the river road from Laplace toward New Orleans, but were intercepted by troops, and upwards of 100 of the rebels were killed in battle or later executed. No one knows why they were going to New Orleans, but given the percentage of black people in the population at the time, possibly they were hoping to establish a black republic modeled after Haiti.

I remember asking a few (white) people in Laplace what they thought about this facet of their history, and none of them had ever heard of it. But I did get the feeling that some of them may have approved of the killings of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, which happened while I was in Laplace. They didn't outright say that, of course, but they assumed that since I was white, and a Texan, that they could at least share with me their aversion to outsiders coming down into our South and making trouble.

My parents' house backed up to a railroad track. African-Americans lived on the other side of the tracks. I could walk down the railroad tracks to go birdwatching, which had recently become a hobby, but black youths--at least older ones-- were suspect if they walked on the tracks. It was thought they might be "looking into" white people's yards. And this was thought to be a very bad thing.

That all seems very distant now. Things are much improved. Aren't they?

I am pretty sure a young black male could walk down the tracks there nowadays without trouble. But cultural presuppositions, i.e., prejudices, might still be in play. I am confidant that, given the semi-rural nature of the area, no one today would be at all troubled by me walking down the tracks carrying binoculars, any more than they were then. People would far more likely assume that I was a bird-watcher than a peeping Tom. Would a black man be given the same latitude? I'd guess there would still be trouble, based on no more than this: "who ever heard of a black bird-watcher?"

Still, by and large, open expressions of prejudice have diminished by light-years since the 1960s. Is this good? Well, yes. But...

The interesting thing about all of these memories of my own past is that for all of the cultural differences between then and now, there was in those days a nation-wide sensibility that defined extremism in a very different way than we do now. And extremism was not a good thing. Extremism is what sank Goldwater, after all.

Everyone in 1964, even the people who were unapologetic bigots, accepted that openly expressed racial prejudice was an extreme position. What I am trying to say is--and I think this is true, or at least it seems true to what I remember--that there were more people then, than now, who both thought of themselves as extremist and who were willing to be so, openly. Something has changed, but it may not all be for the good. The outright vocal bigots are still around, fewer in number-- you can still run into them, in the south, not very often, the unreconstructed neo-confederate types. But they are dying out.

What has replaced them, nationwide, troubles me. It's a sort of malicious indifference that has permeated and corrupted the core of an entire political party. I mean--think of it, we all saw it--an entire nation can watch a mostly black city be destroyed, and at a good portion of this country doesn't much give a rat's ass, and prefers to forget about it. People chew gum and watch on TV as other people drown, and the watchers occasionally, idly, think of reasons that the victims are to blame. This is not considered racism, and certainly not extremist. Not outre. Not unusual. It's near the middle of the American road. That's amazing. You realize how close to the surface genocide is.

The difference I am trying to get at is this: the killers of four black children knew they had committed a horrific crime, as we see by the fact that they hid themselves, and lied about it. The gum-chewers don't hide, and don't bother to lie, and don't care what the death toll was. Nor do they attempt to justify it on the basis of preserving our way of life, as open bigots used to, in defending the crimes of their fellows.

And it's worth noting that the head gum-chewer is our president. (Actually, in fairness, as far as I know he does not chew gum, at least not while making speeches. But the indifference is something he can't hide, even when his smirk attempts to be a smile, even as he he waves to the imaginary crowd and steps smartly toward his waiting helicopter.)

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