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Yet A Stranger: Why Black Americans Still Don't Feel at Home
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Which Way to the Promised Land?
I love the old girl despite her nasty ways. I know she needs me. I think she knows it too. Still, she can be so difficult at times. So ornery and ungrateful. Cruel on occasion. Wicked. Inflicting pain and tribulation just for the heck of it, it seems. Yet every time, just as I am about to collapse under her tiresome demands or explode with rage from her abuse, she pulls me to her bosom and rocks me with promises. One moment I am her curse, the next her beloved.
I am determined to get her well even though she can be a most uncooperative patient, refusing to come clean about the seriousness of her ailments; refusing to settle down for the serious therapy she needs. Her mercurial nature repels me today, attracts me tomorrow, but always, always intrigues. Of course I realize her neurosis is dangerous and that I should probably run off. That would show her. But I am a sucker for the good in her, which is a good too good to leave. So here I stay, battered but bewitched. What can I say? She is my country, my home.
Four centuries have lapsed since the first twenty Africans were wrenched from their families, their land, their language, their customs, and altogether their freedom, then shipped across the treacherous Atlantic and delivered into the clutches of English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia. Four hundred years. Enough time, you would think, to have come to terms with such a patently grievous wrongto have not only abolished the heinous institution of slavery, but to have eradicated every vile thought, every ignorant theory, every wicked impulse that gave rise to and nurtured the practice. Enough time to have taken every measure available and imaginable to repair the breach between black and white and to reconcile us, American to American.
Yet black Americans, descendants of the stolen Africans, still do not have equal footing with white Americans who share with us a nation. This is our home, but we do not enjoy its full range of comforts.
Like strangers, we are less at ease, transacting our daily lives with less true liberty, more trepidation, and in the face of more closed or stubborn doors than others who call America home. We are by no means newcomers, nor are our numbers so slight that the disparities can be excused as oversights. The original twenty have become thirty-five million souls. Most of us91 percentwere born and have lived only here.
Still, from time to time and in sundry ways, come signs that our presence is not welcomed. The United States of America may be our home and, as such, it deserves our dutyour productivity, patriotism, and compliance. But it does not always feel like home. Not if home is where you let your hair down and kick your shoes off and help yourself to the bounty. Not if home is where you don't have to tiptoe or look over your shoulder or wonder what they're saying about you or doing behind your back. Not if home is where there are no favorites, only equal kin. Not if home is where the others care about you and wouldn't think of letting you go hungry or homeless or ill-educated or without medical care, without nurturance of, or appreciation for, the gifts you bring and the talents with which you are endowed. Not if home is where it is one for all and all for one. Not if home is where you need not explain yourself as if you are some mystery created for intrigue or dissection"a chronic patient for the sociological clinic, the sick man of American democracy," as black writer Alain Locke put it in 1925.
There is an absence of hospitality, a distance, a hesitation, a suspiciousness directed at black Americans that is unbecoming of a place called home. Instead there exists the sense of being on shaky ground, the awareness of hostility and confrontation bubbling just beneath the surface. A feeling that at any moment the little dance of tolerance may be abandoned and there you'd have it: a full frontal assault of prejudice, fear, anger, and deadly assumptions even though, these days, the attack may be so subtle and shifty that it is difficult for even the beholder to discern, let alone for its targets to indict. It is, in its modern form, what might be called passive racism.
In his 1968 treatise, The New Racialism, Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihanlater a U.S. senator from New Yorkadopted a new terminology for racial prejudice. While acknowledging a streak of the racist virus in the American bloodstream, Moynihan chose to distinguish the more common strain as racialism. It was a phenomenon, he said, a profoundly different position from that of racism, with its logic of genocide and subordination. And it does no service whatever to this polity to identify as racist attitudes that which are merely racialist and which will, usually, on examination, be found to have essentially a social class basis. Moynihan may have been on to something. Not that the distinction dulls the pain.
Three decades later, the National Report Card on Discrimination made another effort at distinguishing between active and passive racism, naming the latter Have-A-Nice-Day discrimination. More critical and insightful than Moynihan regarding the perniciousness of this passive strain of race prejudice, the Report Card authors warned of its deceit in fostering premature claims that we have achieved a color-blind society.
But worse than that, passive racism, racialism, Have-A-Nice-Day discriminationcall it what you willdenies its heritage. It overlooks the connection between itself, which tolerates disparity and injustice, and active racism, which often explodes into invective, intimidation, and violence. As it did on June 14, 1998, in the small town of Jasper, Texas.
That is where they found James Byrd's keys, his dentures, his head, and his torso, each in a separate spot along a three-mile stretch of Huff Creek Road. Byrd's killers, all young white men, had picked up the black man in town and driven him to the outskirts where they beat him, hitched him to the bumper of their pickup truck with a towing chain, and dragged him literally to pieces, apparently for the thrill of it.
Other racial atrocities marked America's approach to her fourth century of black and white cohabitation at the dawn of the third millennium. A Haitian immigrant was beaten and sodomized by a white New York City police officer. In the same city, a black man, standing in the doorway of his apartment building and holding only his wallet, was gunned down by four white cops who fired forty-one bullets, hitting flesh and bone nineteen times. Pipe bombs accompanied by racist threats shook up a historically black university in Florida. In suburban Chicago, a black basketball coach on an after-dinner stroll with two of his four young children was fatally shot by an avowed white separatist itching for a race war. A black teenager on his way home was killed for sport by two white boys in Indiana. In Los Angeles, three racist skinheads kicked and beat a homeless man to death because he was black. Black students and faculty at the University of Maryland were rattled for weeks by a rash of death threats. An African immigrant was gunned down at a bus stop in Denver, chosen randomly by young white men who claimed to be race warriors. Three white American soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, shot and killed a black couple walking down the street in order to earn the skinheads' medal for killing blacksa spiderweb tattoo. The Los Angeles Police Department discovered a sinister hive in its Ramparts Division wherein officers had framed, beaten, threatened, and even kidnapped and shot scores of suspects, most of them black and brown men.
In every case, expressions of shock and condemnation poured from every corner, irrespective of race. But outside local protests, no real alarms were sounded. There was no sustained outrage, no urgent appeals to dig up the hows and whys of the many race-based tragedies that momentarily shook the New Age. It was generally accepted that the incidents were isolated and anomalous, far different from the epidemic of black lynchings, stake-burnings, and drownings that had bedeviled the early twentieth century. Since widespread racial terrorism no longer presented a constant danger, the nation, though horrified and aggrieved by each awful modern instance, was able to dismiss the tragedies and the perpetrators as aberrationsa nasty but temporary rash on the body politic rather than a serious and festering disease. The more extreme the racist violence, the easier it was for earnestly appalled whites to denounce it without having to acknowledge, or even examine, its relationship to common prejudices ingrained in daily life.
Instead, they drew satisfaction from outward signs and their own good behavior. They did not use the n word; they lived near, worked and socialized with black people; they contributed cheerfully to the Black College Fund or the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation; they were counted among the fans of black entertainers, writers, and athletes; they allowed their children to sleep over at black friends' houses. But these snapshots of interracial harmony are an illusion. Americans' shrugging indifference to continuing, long-lived social disparities tells the real story.
After all, racism has always been about substance, not style. In the 1950s, much of my native Arkansas was charmed by such a man. His name was Jim Johnson. In 1956 he sought the Democratic nomination for governor. Johnson was a man with an engaging smile. Well-read, handy with a pen, and pedantic about history and literature, Johnson fancied himself something of an intellectual and the beau ideal of southern gentlemanliness. But his love of the classics and his social graces could not mask his writhing racism. One of the reasons he wanted to be governor was that he found Orval Faubus too Negro-friendlythe same Orval Faubus who would later defy the U.S. Supreme Court and the president of the United States on school desegregation. During the 1956 campaign, Johnson appealed to fellow bigots by refusing to shake a black person's hand along the campaign trail. He lost the nomination that year, but two years later Johnson wormed his way into the voters' good graces and took a seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court, his racism intact and in tow.
These days, few supremacists can afford to be as direct as Johnson or his midcentury peers. The contemporary crowd is more artful in speech and tactics. Take Charlton Heston, an actor who portrayed some of the greats of history, from Moses to Michelangelo. But in the 1990s, Heston fell in with the National Rifle Association and, in short order, became the gun lobby's president and its most celebrated spokesman.
Speaking to the archconservative Free Congress Foundation in 1997, Heston presented a message distinguishable from what any snaggle-toothed white supremacist might say only because it was delivered with Heston's inimitable dramatic flair.
The Constitution was handed down to guide us by a bunch of those wise old dead white guys who invented this country, Heston told his audience.
Now, some flinch when I say that. Why? It's true... they were white guys. So were most of the guys who died in Lincoln's name opposing slavery in the 1860s. So why should I be ashamed of white guys? Why is Hispanic pride or black pride a good thing while white pride conjures up shaved heads and white hoods? Why was the Million Man March on Washington celebrated in the media as progress while the Promise Keepers March on Washington was greeted with suspicion and ridicule? I'll tell you whycultural warfare.
Then, in a nostalgic vein, Heston said good citizens prefer the America they built, where you could pray without feeling na?ve, love without being kinky, sing without profanity, be white without feeling guilty, own a gun without shame and raise your hand without apology. And Heaven help the God-fearing, law-abiding, Caucasian, middle class Protestant. At that point, Heston called up his civil rights bona fidesa sophisticated version of the some-of-my-best-friends tack.
In 1963, I marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King to uphold the Bill of Rights, Heston thundered. Then he denounced blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand while they seek preference with the other. But Heston apparently had no problem with white actors who extol racial harmony one moment and stick a knife in it the next.
Whether Heston always had a split personality on race or was converted to bigotry late in life will be his secret. But, had he been an apprentice of modern racism in need of propaganda, he would not have had to rummage through dusty annals to find it. New material is plentiful, filling bookshelves, newsstands, and, most especially, the Internet with its explosion of supremacist web sites. By 2001, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, was tracking more than six hundred such sites. Many were organs of real life, flesh-and-blood hate groups, some with chapters in several states.
For inspiration, they may turn to Glayde Whitney, a psychology professor at Florida State University. In an interview with the Associated Press, Whitney bewailed the country's attempts to install and uphold equality because, he said, biology defies it. Black people, he said, are mentally not very smart and should just give up on the quest for parity.
Within mainstream society, there has been an astonishing lack of resistance to proclamations like Whitney's or those of another academic, Charles Murray, coauthor of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Far from being spurned, Murray's book floated on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks, with the author lapping up acclaim and fat fees on the lecture and talk show circuits. (Murray's coauthor, Richard J. Hernstein, died before the book was published in 1994.)
The popularity of literature and so-called science that are degrading to people of color keeps faith with a timeless American tradition. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, written in 1781-82, Thomas Jefferson attached a litany of stereotypes, myths, and lies to black people, providing an ideological boilerplate for modern prejudices:
The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that external monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?
Confounding father that he was, Jefferson concluded that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. He attributed an array of behaviors and proclivities to blackness, including inordinate perspiration, little need for sleep, bravery and adventuresomeness, an ability to quickly get over affliction and grief, an intolerance for cold temperatures, and sexual intensitythough love seems with them to be more an eager desire than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Perhaps that is why Jefferson repeatedly had sex with his slave, the lovely Sally Hemmings, but failed to behave lovingly toward her or the children they allegedly produced together, not even enough to set them free.
Most white Americans today might reject Jefferson's assertions, but in some cases, it would be for their particulars, not the overarching point of Jefferson's dissertation on race. The sense of white superiority, if not supremacyof entitlement, of preference, of ownership, of priorityremains whole and prosperous. It is deeply occulted in the American mind, a mind that, according to Alain Locke, regards the black American as more of a formula than a human beinga 'something' to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be 'kept down' or 'in his place' or 'helped up,' to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden. Often, even the most conscientious whites think of themselves as reaching down rather than reaching out when they come to the aid of their black countrymen.
Verily, the nation is well along in mastering the rituals and trappings of equality. But it has yet to embrace its genuine, or spiritual, objective, which is the equalization of opportunity and stature, regardless of color. Despite measurable, even monumental, gains in categories like income, education, and the enlargement of the black middle class, life for the multitude of black Americans is not much different from the way it was in 1944 when Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal wrote his groundbreaking book, An American Dilemma. The Negroes do not by far have anything approaching a tenth of the things worth having in America, wrote Myrdal. Today millions of black Americans can see no way out of the destitution described by Myrdal six decades ago.
In fact, most black American children remain confined to re-segregated, poorly equipped schools that have been drained of financial and moral support. Millions of black Americans are quarantined in decrepit public housing projects, consigned to minimum wage jobs at the end of a broom or a drive-through window. One of every three young black males is, or has been, in prison. The New Age, the Communications Age, the Information Age are not accessible to many black Americans. Overall, the ranks of black Americans who are cut off from the mainstream are, as ever, legion. They are all but doomed to languish and waste away in a world where only producers and haves count. Escape is possible, but it usually requires exceptional fortitude, a stroke of good luck, uncommon patience, and soul-sapping perseveranceall admirable and good but such exceptional and inordinate requirements, compared to what other Americans expend for the same prize, the same destination.
Americans may be accustomed to the disparities and double standards that color American life, but they are detestable and, truth be told, inexcusable. Good intentions do not suffice, nor does moralizing. The popular refrain that personal responsibility alone can undo the damage or level the playing field is born of high arrogance and ignorance. So is the Super Negro factor, which offers a shot at the American Dream after a black man, woman, or child has invested more talent, wit, and will than is ordinarily or rightly required. Furthermore, we are offended by suggestions that we should be meek and grateful that things are not as bad as they once were. Given the gaping differences between the prospects for a white American child and a black American child, we take no comfort in comparisons to how it used to be or how it might be still. Our sights are set on how it should be and how it should have been all along.