Friday, April 30, 2010

When Racism Masquerades as Something Else

(The following is an excellent commentary from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Carlos Dews puts into focus the current political climate, particularly the Tea Party...calling it what it really is. Dews' commentary is supported by facts from The University of Washington).

Don't let the virulent hatred of Obama's presidency - veiled in "policy differences" - fool you. Just ask someone raised around bigotry.

By Carlos Dews

[Dews is an author, a professor of English literature, and chairman of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University in Rome]

'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 racism.

by Carlos Dews, author, a professor of English literature, and chairman of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University in Rome.

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Aspenia, the Italian journal published by the Aspen Foundation Italy.


Anonymous said...

To the author: As a Black Woman who just happened to stumble upon this article; thank you! Well written. I felt the place of truth this flowed from within you.
I work in an evironment and profession where I am the only black person out of 70 in the building. Eventhough some smile in my face, it makes my stomache turn to think of what they say & insinuate behind my back. Not just about me as a black woman and what they think they know, but about the black community as a whole. Institutionalized racism is the worst & most deadly. I'de rather you call me a nigger to my face... at least I know where the enemy is coming from & can shoot back with aim & precision!
Anyway thank you!

Christophe Landry said...

I enjoyed this article as the experiences of the author resonate quite clearly.

My only suggestion is for a solution to the problem: deracialization.

US inhabitants continue to "see" themselves as different because of some very carefully taught so-called physical differences, differences which have been essentialized.

In addition, the US has an education system that reinforces divisiveness, through tax-dollar funding for US public schools. We all know where the center of economic mobility is and who controls it.

On the other hand, the belief in human races is not unique to "whites," it is reinforced by "blacks," as well. Bigotry by non-whites has been sanctioned in the US, allowing some to verbalize clearly their bigotry ("blacks" and "Hispanics") and others silenced, out of fear ("whites").

There is power in language and English language, all over the world, is stained with divisive rhetoric (Good/Evil, White/Black, Republics/Democrats, Corporatism/Socialism etc). Racialization (and ethnicization) is therefore a natural fixture in the English language.

Deracialization and a new overhauled education system (that provides same funding for ALL schools) is the appropriate hope for change in America.

Anonymous said...

When those earning less than $250,000 per year, those who need medical insurance, those struggling with exorbitant interest charges, etc., vote against their own progress it can only be called racism......not policy differences.

Fewer than %10 of the people in this country are wealthy (using the above figure to denote wealth) and about %13 of the people in this country are Black Americans. So 77 percent vote against themselves. Why? Could it be that these brilliant policies were proposed by a brilliant Black man?
Policy differences or racism.