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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ain't no franchise on racism

Only in in the grips of complete absurdity can one be in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and contemplate Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in terms of how much progress we have made toward social justice. No question, we have made some progress, but that progress reveals deeper, chronic social pathologies in the human psyche which are institutionalized in new forms, in new expressions.

Aberdeen had a racist fest this spring. When plans for a beef packing plant were announced for the town, an outcry rose over the "kind" of people it would attract as workers. Groups organized to oppose rezoning and financial assistance for the plant on environmental and public nuisance grounds, but the arguments also included a disclaimer of racial motives, and invariably concluded with the observation that certain ethnic groups have a propensity for criminality. The local newspaper discussion board was widely cited among civil rights groiups for its virulent and demented expressions of racist propaganda.

The debate on the national level between the Clinton and Obama camps exposes another facet of racism. In the zeal to claim an identity with civil rights, the contenders bicker over who made them most possible. Part of primary rhetoric is for the contenders to claim the most achievement and success, but the juvenile boasting matches have little relevance in understanding the intricate panoply of cooperative human endeavor involved in the civil rights movement. Its successes remain largely symbolic rather than systemic.

The intellectual motives of the civil rights movement as advanced by Martin Luther King were forged from the existential theology of African-American churches as they evolved during slavery. The social context was established by World War II. Men returning from military service found that they were denied the equality, freedom, and justice they had fought for. A seldom-recognized aspect of the civil rights movement is that it gained much of its impetus in the military during the Cold War era. A series of commissions was created after World War II to examine segregation in the military and they produced numerous plans and recommendations. Some desegregation was taking place, but the real impetus came during the Korean War when American troops were besieged by Chinese Communist troops. Black units did not perform well in some instances. While some attributed the poor showings to innate racial characteristics, more astute officers and observers pointed out that the units suffered from incompetent leadership of the white officers commanding them and from a lack of morale and motivation because freedom, equality, and justice were denied them.

Desegregation took a quick leap into reality in 1951 when Gen. Ridgway, commander of U.N. forces in Korea at the time, requested permission for the immediate desegregation of the forces under his command. It happened, but it took a couple of decades for the military to adjust.

When I was drafted in the mid-50s, the training units were fully segregated. At least half of my basic training cadre were black. However, some career servicemen practiced racist discrimination to the point of violence. Social life off military bases was characterized by enforced segregation. While I was on temporary duty at at air base, the enlisted personnel bragged about throwing black men down the stairs when they tried to use them at the same time as the white personnel. My bunk mate at a missile base in Germany was black. One night after coming off duty I stopped at the EM Club for a quick beer, and a group of regulars started in on the nigger-lover routine. They got so exercised that the bartender would not let me leave and asked for the guard mount to patrol the area until all personnel were in the billets. The fight against racist attitudes involved daily battles and the constant work of people who never did--and probably never will--receive due credit for their contributions.

The real status of civil rights is better gauged by current rhetoric than than by the ceremonial replaying of Martin Luther King's I-have-a-dream speech. His dream is still unrealized, a raisin in the sun, to use Langston Hughes' words. The rhetoric of race is about exclusion. As people take credit for their own efforts and attitudes, they contrive to exclude others from acknowledgment for their efforts to resist racism and extend civil rights. The schemes to push the agenda of freedom and equality ahead is assailed by some as defects of liberalism. Their proponents are "defined" as mentally defective, morally defunct, and --at best-- wrong-headed. The rhetoric of the age is directed at defining other people in ways that justify their exclusion from the respect and serious consideration as equal human beings. It is rhetoric that endorses the idea of integration, but condemns the measures for accomplishing it. It is the rhetoric of that human malaise that sees other people who might be different as objectives of vilification and oppression.

But those who point out the illnesses of our country are labeled as unpatriotic and anti-American and, certainly, are lesser citizens. Big Brother has spoken.

As long as we are mired in our rhetoric of demeaning and discrediting others, dreams of equality and justice will have to remain dreams, and a mean and petty culture will prevail.

And Aberdeen will remain free from "those people."

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States