News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Monday, August 16, 2010

The legacy of racism

During the 2008 election campaign, I did a couple of  posts about the racial comments and attitudes I encountered about Barack Obama, making special note of the fact that many came from Democrats.  A black executive I know commented that if we elected a black president, long suppressed racial hatreds, resentments, and prejudices would erupt like dandelions after a spring rain.  They did. Last summer, as the so-called tea party movement gained momentum, racial signs and slogans were in the front lines of the demonstrations.  People insisted that they were protesting Obama's policies, not reacting to his racial makeup. But it was impossible to miss the racial stereotypes and derogation as the point of the message sent from those demonstrations. 

There are some white supremacists and others of the KKK mold who openly use the First Amendment to express their hatred of blacks, Jews, Latinos, gays, and the entire liberal establishment.  Most people get livid, however,  when someone suggests that they display a racist tendency.   They react to any challenge that things they say may have a racial bias, as if one were accusing them of raping  corpses, their parents, or babies.  The hypersensitivity about racism is testimony to the efforts to stigmatize it, but those efforts have succeeded only in curtailing the open display of it, not in doing much to  limit the practice of it.

When people in Aberdeen mounted a protest against the building of the Northern Beef Packers packing plant, they did so because of the "kind of people" it would attract to the community to work.  In this blog, I commented, as did many other people in the community, that the opposition to the plant on the basis of the ethnic groups likely to come to work in it branded the community as racist.  I received a letter of rebuke from one of the  movement leaders saying that my accusation of racism was unfair, but that statistics showed that in communities where Latinos live, the crime rates are higher than where they don't.  I did not bother to reply, because the idea that factors other than race are involved in crime rates is not an idea that is manageable to those who prefer to think that criminal tendencies are a matter of ethnic heritage.

The larger discussion about race incorporates juvenile logic.  Actually the puerile absence of any logic.  When charges  of racism are made, a common response is to insist that the other side is racist.  Andrew Breitbart put up a contorted and contrived video clip of Shirley Sherrod giving a speech as a direct response to the NAACP resolution asking the tea parties to rebuke the people who used their events as racist platforms.  If anyone cares about accuracy and precision in language, it is important to note that the resolution asked the tea partiers to repudiate the racist insults; it did not say that the tea parties were racist as organizations.  But who cares about what is really said, as long as you can contort someone's words into an accusation that can be used as the  pretext for outrage?  Breitbart put the video up as evidence--contrived and phony as it was--to show that racist statements occurred at a NAACP event.

The Obama administration panicked and fired Shirley Sherrod for what appeared to be reverse racism.  Despite the fact that Breitbart and his cohorts are known to manufacture evidence  (the California attorney general has definitively debunked as fraudulent the videos that brought down ACORN), people in the administration swallowed the bait and acted hastily to show that they were on the right side of the racist issue.  Sherrod's firing is a sign that people who should know better have been put into a state of agitation by the political climate that has changed to one of dangerous hostility since Obama's election. Her firing was an act of cowardly appeasement by people who have been rendered stupid by the racial toxicity that pervades the land.  They fell prey to what amounted to an insanely puerile taunt that "they (the NAACP) are racist, too."

Many of us thought the election of our first black president might be a signal that the old racial hatreds and resentments were finally behind us.  Pundits talked of post racial America. Hardly anyone considered that a black president might revive old hatreds or that a campaign would be launched to portray Obama, all at once, as Nazi, socialist, communist, racist, liberal and every negative condemnation people associate with the n***** word.  A few like my black executive friend, however, knew that racism was not dead; it lies beneath the surface straining to boil up.   Obama's detractors are trying to show what happens if you let a n***** take over the White House.    The incoherence of all those conflicting epithets arises from the desire to humiliate Obama and his kind and put them in their place.  The stigma of being called racist precludes use of the word n-word, so they call him every other thing that is regarded by them as detestable.  The point is to prove his detestability, and that of anyone like him or who supports him.  It's called parallel attack.  The attackers are loathe to use the n-word, and protest that they are only disagreeing with his policies.  So they deride his policies, his character, his personality, his birthright, his education--all those things that could be used to justify their designation of a n*****, even though they use only the euphemisms they can muster.    What undercuts the claims of intellectual legitimacy of the attacks is that they are for the most part made up.  They are juvenile accusations that have little basis in fact.  They are the expressions of petulant temper tantrums, not words that name any actual  facts.

 The new racism tries to portray the liberation of blacks from racial oppression as a communist plot.  Its racist strategy is not to attack them them directly with racist pejoratives, but to malign and slander, at least in conservative eyes, the organizations that have promoted racial equality and fought discrimination.  The NAACP is not just a fixation of Breitbart's but is a target of  parallel attack by conservative factions that say it is the cause of all the problems that beset the black community.  In a video being circulated on conservative web sites (you can view it here), the racist propaganda distorts  the history of slavery by contending that the slaves were liberated only to be re-enslaved by the "progressive, socialist" organizations, such as the NAACP.  The new racism revives the old McCarthy era hysteria of 60 years ago and marries it to the racial stereotypes with which it portrays African America. 

For those of us who live in a state where the very landscape is a monument to racism, it is difficult not to hear racial motives in every ad hominem word.  In fact,  the ad hominem ploy is the telling feature of the political debate.  When attacks on policy are not credible,  a person is attacked. In this state where the "Indian Wars" are still fought, verbally and politically, racism is a huge political force.  South Dakota has nine of those geographical divisions called reservations, (click the word for a native take on it from The Republic of Lakotah) which were conceived as detention  camps in which the great genocide campaign we refer to as Indian Wars would be brought to a conclusion.  The idea was to herd the Indians onto the poorest, least productive land in the region and let them languish.  No sooner had the Treaty of 1868, which ceded the Indians all of West River in the state, been signed than its systematic abrogation began.  The Indians were subdued through starvation by slaughtering off the bison.  Now the process could be continued by putting them on reservations that could not produce food in sufficient abundance.  South Dakota is one of the states that is politically and geographically shaped on racist policy.

The legacy of racism is a two-sided weapon that cuts both ways.  The Indian Wars began in Minnesota in 1862 when white agents embezzled and pilfered away the goods they were to deliver to the Indians.  The Indians concluded that perfidy and treachery was a racial characteristic of the whites, and they embarked on a slaughter of all whites who encroached on the land they believed was theirs.   White American reacted by launching the thirty-year campaign we call the Indian Wars.  The the armed conflict of the Wars ended, for the most part, in 1890 at Wounded Knee.  The hate propaganda which fuels wars continues.  

A large and defining theme of American history is its struggle with racism and the allied strains of ethnic, religious, and political hatreds.  The nation's early years as the Constitution was hashed out involved the arguments  and expressions of concern about the status of slaves.  John Jay said, "To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused."  Patrick Henry predicted,  "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil."  The ideas that would eventually abolish slavery and work for another hundred years to establish racial equality for African Americans were an ancillary discussion during the  making of the Constitution.  Indians were not a consideration, except for the clause that gives Congress the power to regulate commerce with them.  Their sovereign status as discrete nations excluded them from rights as American citizens until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, which declared that any Indian born in the United States was a citizen with all the rights that pertain.  But as with the Emancipation Proclamation, the declaration of law does not produce automatic changes in the minds of the people.

It took a century after the abolition of slavery to address the issue of segregation and the corrosive customs of racial discrimination.  Until the past year, we seemed to be making progress regarding African Americans.   Native Americans have not been much of a consideration in examinations of America's race-based systems of oppression.  The fight against Jim Crow is an intense one that is now centered in the White House.  But the recognition of American Indians as equal is an issue that has been tabled to White Clay, Nebraska.  Equality is displaced by schemes for making money off of a people we have impoverished and for finding excuses to maintain that oppression.

Therein lies the two-edged aspect of racism.  Racism breeds racism.  It makes the oppressed view their oppressors as inherently malignant.  I am acquainted with two families of tribally enrolled people who have moved off the reservation into white towns because their light-skinned children are the objects of vicious racial discrimination by traditionals. Their light skin makes them despised and distrusted by people who have been consigned to the concentration camp environment.

Anti-white racism does exist and even grows more virulent with the years in the ghettos, the barrios, and on the reservations.  But ghettos, barrios, and reservations are not the creations of the people who reside in them.  They are the creations of their oppressors.  For the people who live in those circumstances, the histories of slavery, Indian wars, and racial suppression are written into their everyday lives.  It is impossible to get over something that determines the quality of daily life.

The American genius has been in its ability to confront the denials of its verbal promise of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity.  That genius is currently on hold.   The regressives regard anyone who uses the right to seek redress of grievances or who points out denials of that promise as "America haters and bashers."  They want to take America back--all the way  back to Jim Crow, McCarthyism, the great bigotries and exclusions of the past.  All in the name of getting the budget under control and fighting "socialism."  They  want to re-establish those "Christian" principles of not sheltering the poor, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.  All such bunk is communism.

The significance of the election of 2010 is that it will indicate which values prevail.  It will decide whether our legacy will be to surmount racism or let it rule once again. 


chas jewett said...

good post! it's not often that white south dakotans address race but it's welcome. i hope you don't forget about the state of SD's defense of racist voting districts. They defended the districts-- sometimes to the supreme court, at the tax payer's expense...and i don't think they've won yet.

Willis said...

Very well put.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States