Copyright ©2010 |The Unique Green Boutique
Posted on Sun, Apr. 25, 2010
When Racism Masquerades as Something Else
Don't let the virulent hatred of Obama's presidency - veiled in "policy
differences" - fool you. Just ask someone raised around bigotry.
'The nigger show."
I first heard this expression used to describe the Obama administration
during a visit to my hometown in East Texas during the early summer of
2009. I understood what the epithet meant: Our minds are made up, the
president lacks legitimacy, and there is nothing he can do that we will
support. I was not surprised to hear such a phrase.
I grew up in the 1960s during the ragged end of the Jim Crow era, where
many of the books in my school library were stamped Colored School,
meaning they had been brought to the white school when the town was
forced to integrate the public school system. I recall my parents had
instructed me, before my first day of elementary school, not to sit in
a chair where a black child had sat. And I remember my sister joked
that her yearbook, when it appeared at the end of her first year of
integrated high school, was in "black and white."
The outward signs of racism of my home state have now disappeared, but
racial hatred remains. My father and his friends still use the word
nigger to refer to all black people, and the people of my hometown
don't hesitate to spout their racist rhetoric to my face, assuming I
agree with them. I hold my tongue for the sake of having continued
access to this kind of truth. I learned long ago how not to accept the
hatred I was being taught and how to survive not having done so. More
recently, I realized that I also learned another lesson: how to
recognize racism when it masquerades as something else.
More than 40 years after my first experiences with racism, I am
thousands of miles away in Rome, but surrounded by ghosts. Last year, I
received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a
community program called the Big Read, which sponsors activities to
encourage communities to come together to read and discuss a single
book. I chose Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, in part because I
thought that some of the most salient issues in the novel - racism,
classism, xenophobia, the Jim Crow era - were perhaps relevant to an
increasingly diverse, contemporary Italy.
That there is racism in Italy is obvious to anyone who pays attention
to current affairs. In fact, during the first week of the Big Read
Rome, a story in one of Italy's national newspapers detailed the
experience of a Nigerian woman being called sporca nera (essentially,
dirty nigger) by two women she asked to stop smoking on a Roman bus.
But I never imagined that consideration of the novel would prove so
relevant to a country that had just elected its first black president.
Ironically, until the election of Barack Obama, my discussions of
racism in the United States seemed historical. I felt that with the
passage of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, the country
had turned a corner, that the slow evaporation of overt racism was
perhaps inevitable. Now, my personal experience of Southern racism
feels current and all too familiar. A news story about the Big Read
that appeared in La Repubblica on Sept. 20 (unaware that my grant was
awarded during the Bush administration), presciently brought Rome,
Obama, To Kill a Mockingbird, and racism together in its headline:
"Obama brings antiracist book to Rome."
Jimmy Carter was lambasted for having recently explained that the
vehemence with which many Americans resist Obama's presidency is an
expression of racism. Carter was accused of fanning the flames of
racial misunderstanding by labeling as "racist" what on the surface
could be perceived as legitimate policy differences. Like Carter, as a
white Southern man, I can see beyond the seemingly legitimate rhetoric
to discern what is festering behind much of the opposition to Obama and
to his administration's policy initiatives. I also have access, via the
racist world from which I came, direct confirmation of the racial
hatred toward Obama.
The veiled racism I sense in the United States today is couched, in
public discourse at least, in terms that allow for plausible
deniability of racist intent. And those who resist any policy
initiative from the Obama administration engage in a scorched-earth
policy that reminds me of the self-centered white flight, the
abandonment of public schools, and the proliferation of private
schools, that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to
desegregate public schools. The very people, like my own rural,
working-class family back in East Texas, who stand to gain from the
efforts of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress are,
because of their racism, willing to oppose policies that would benefit
them the most. Their racism outweighs their own self-interest.
Unfortunately, racists in the United States have learned one valuable
lesson since the 1960s: They cannot express their racism directly. In
public, they must veil their racial hatred behind policy differences.
This obfuscation makes direct confrontation difficult. Anyone pointing
out their racist motivations runs the risk of unfairly playing "the
race card." But I know what members of my family mean when they say -
as so many said during the town hall meetings in August - that they
"want their country back." They want it back, safely, in the hands of
someone like them, a white person. They feel that a black man has no
right to be the president of their country.
During a phone conversation a few weeks after Obama's election, my
father lamented that he and my mother might have to stop visiting the
casinos in Shreveport,La.: Given Obama's election, "the niggers are
already walking around like they own the place. They won't even give up
their seats for white women anymore. I don't know what we're going to
do with 'em."
My students often ask me how I managed to avoid accepting the lesson in
racism offered by my family. From the time I was 4 or 5 years old -
roughly the same age as Scout Finch, the narrator of To Kill a
Mockingbird - I recall knowing that I didn't agree with racism. More
important, my paternal grandmother provided me with the encouragement
that I could ignore what I was being taught. She provided me with the
courage to resist.
My grandmother hoped that my father and his father represented the last
generations of the type of Southern man that had shaped her life -
virulently racist, prone to violence, proud of their ignorance, and
self-defeatingly stubborn. It was a type of Southern man that she hoped
and prayed I could avoid becoming.
However, my father and his father were not the last of their kind;
their racial hatred has been passed on. My grandmother, if she were
alive, would recognize the same tendencies among many of the people who
shout down politicians and bring guns to public rallies. She would also
see how the only change they have made is to replace overt racist
epithets with more euphemistic language.
Rather than seeing my home state and its racist attitudes, slowly, over
time, pulled in the direction of more acceptance, the country as a
whole has become more like the South, the racial or cultural equivalent
of what is called the Walmartization of American retail.
It might be easy to see literature as impotent in the face of the
persistence and adaptability of racism. But I continue to believe in
the transformative potential of literature and its ability to provide
an alternative view of the world. And for children who are not lucky
enough to have grandmothers like mine, I believe that books like To
Kill a Mockingbird can provide inoculation against the virus that is