12 August 2016
Look at this photo of my classmates and me from 1969. I’m four years old, and it’s a preschool at Brandeis University in Boston. I’m the one with dark pigtails and a soul-piercing stare. Notice anything else? If you’re thirty or younger, it’s likely the scene looks normal to you, so let me repeat:
Check out this photo from 1969.
Not too many white people from my generation can say their education began during the Civil Rights Movement in an integrated classroom with an African American teacher.
That younger people think nothing of this photo (my 12 year old daughter shrugged) is a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement, which shattered the old racial norms of our country. My children have been educated alongside people of color from their first days of school, yet many Americans continue to resist the idea of race as an artificial construct. Sadly, it takes generations to overthrow engrained social beliefs.
Eight years after this picture was taken, Boston broke out into rioting over school desegregation. I’d show you the pictures, but copyrights prevent me. There’s one called “The Soiling of Old Glory,” where a white guy looks like he’s about to spear a black man with an American flag on a pole. There’s another showing a huge crowd of whites, some holding a sign that says “Whites have rights.” All because their kids had to go to school with black kids.
I stare at these photos with an odd sense of remove. I was alive when this happened. I’m white, yet the feelings expressed there are so foreign to me. How could anyone be driven by such hatred that they’d attack another human and cause them grave harm, even death? How can light skinned people claim they have a right not to be exposed to darker skinned people? It’s skin! That rubbery stuff that keeps our guts from spilling all over the floor.
I can’t comprehend it, and yet forty years later our country is going through the same spasms again, though we’re more subtle about it. We hide our disdain behind the prose of purportedly well-meaning laws. We claim we aren’t racists, that we have friends of color. We don’t hang people now; we shoot them and claim they were threatening us. We use the internet to anonymously post passive-aggressive memes or condescending rants.
We pretend to hate the policies of our President when the truth is we hate that a black man is the most powerful man in the world.
Oh, the lengths we go to in order to deny it! We attack his faith, his birthplace, his family, his connections, his goals, and worst of all his wife and two children. It’s all a smoke screen for the hatred in our terrified lily-white hearts. And once again that racism was unmasked in the aftermath of Michelle Obama’s stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention. How dare the President’s wife assert that slaves had built the White House? She’s a liar (racist code for uppity black woman)!
The right wingers came out blasting on TV and the internet. Bill O’Reilly ridiculously asserted that those White House construction slaves were well-treated and paid, never mind that their owners took the payments and—hello!—they were still slaves. Here’s a juicy page that tries to set Michelle’s facts straight. Trouble is–she was right, and it’s not too difficult to google the facts. The aforementioned page begins with a quibble: the White House was not built SOLELY by slaves. That’s not what Michelle said. And the stonework may not have been laid by slaves, but it was all cut by slaves, and the grounds were finished with the labor of subcontracted slaves—Abigail Adams herself witnessed this. [See here and here.] The next so-called refutation is that Michelle and Barack are multimillionaires who have proven that hard work can bring anyone success in America. The Obamas’ 2015 tax return shows they aren’t even close to making a million dollars—the bulk of their income is the President’s salary: $400,000. Anyway, what is the point of this irrelevant statement except to slyly infer that maybe more blacks should apply themselves in life? The final attack on this page calls out Michelle’s claim about the Founders never imagining a black person in the White House, and cites several ways the Founding Fathers tried to implement the end of slavery. This is yet another smoke-and-mirrors argument, which neither negates the emotion and truth of Michelle’s original statement nor proves the Founders expected blacks to ever enjoy equal lives.
What is my point? That untold energy and hot air was spent refuting an outstanding theme in Mrs. Obama’s speech instead of embracing it. That haters and racists always fail to stay on topic in their effort to prove they are right, and their failure only proves how much vitriol drives their warped logic. That a completely apolitical sentiment (wow! I—a black woman—wake up every morning in a house built by slaves!) was spun into fresh fodder to incite hateful whites.
You don’t get to say you’re not racist and that everyone else is playing the “race card” when your own arguments are desperate, scattershot, condescending, and specious. Stop pretending, and better yet stop influencing the next generations.
The crazy thing is, this upwelling of racism is only delaying the inevitable browning of our world. But when you’re white, old, and mostly male, that kind of future scares you, not the least because it means the inevitable loss of social power.
As for me, my future began in that colorful class of 1969, the year after King died and 40 long years before a black man moved into the White House.
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