Racism is Alive and Well in America

The following article is taken from The New York Times and can be located here.

Think Again
by Stanley Fish

Henry Louis Gates: Déjà Vu All Over Again

I’m Skip Gates’s friend, too. That’s probably the only thing I share with President Obama, so when he ended his press conference last Wednesday by answering a question about Gates’s arrest after he was seen trying to get into his own house, my ears perked up.

As the story unfolded in the press and on the Internet, I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.

The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?

At the university (which in a past not distant at all did not admit African-Americans ), Gates’s reception was in some ways no different. Doubts were expressed in letters written by senior professors about his scholarly credentials, which were vastly superior to those of his detractors. (He was already a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so called “genius award.”) There were wild speculations (again in print) about his salary, which in fact was quite respectable but not inordinate; when a list of the highest-paid members of the Duke faculty was published, he was nowhere on it.

The Associated Press Henry Louis Gates, Jr., during a book signing in 2006.

The unkindest cut of all was delivered by some members of the black faculty who had made their peace with Duke traditions and did not want an over-visible newcomer and upstart to trouble waters that had long been still. (The great historian John Hope Franklin was an exception.) When an offer came from Harvard, there wasn’t much I could do. Gates accepted it, and when he left he was pursued by false reports about his tenure at what he had come to call “the plantation.” (I became aware of his feelings when he and I and his father watched the N.C.A.A. championship game between Duke and U.N.L.V. at my house; they were rooting for U.N.L.V.)

Now, in 2009, it’s a version of the same story. Gates is once again regarded with suspicion because, as the cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson put it in an interview, he has committed the crime of being H.W.B., Housed While Black.

He isn’t the only one thought to be guilty of that crime. TV commentators, laboring to explain the unusual candor and vigor of Obama’s initial comments on the Gates incident, speculated that he had probably been the victim of racial profiling himself. Speculation was unnecessary, for they didn’t have to look any further than the story they were reporting in another segment, the story of the “birthers” — the “wing-nuts,” in Chris Matthews’s phrase — who insist that Obama was born in Kenya and cite as “proof” his failure to come up with an authenticated birth certificate. For several nights running, Matthews displayed a copy of the birth certificate and asked, What do you guys want? How can you keep saying these things in the face of all evidence?

He missed the point. No evidence would be sufficient, just as no evidence would have convinced some of my Duke colleagues that Gates was anything but a charlatan and a fraud. It isn’t the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate that’s the problem for the birthers. The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house, especially when it’s the White House. Just as some in Durham and Cambridge couldn’t believe that Gates belonged in the neighborhood, so does a vocal minority find it hard to believe that an African-American could possibly be the real president of the United States.

Gates and Obama are not only friends; they are in the same position, suspected of occupying a majestic residence under false pretenses. And Obama is a double offender. Not only is he guilty of being Housed While Black; he is the first in American history guilty of being P.W.B., President While Black.

Have We Overcome?

This piece can be seen here on Huffington Post. If you like it, buzz me up.

Isn’t it ironic that as we’re congratulating ourselves on our ability to elect a black president we are simultaneously lamenting the passage of Proposition 8? We Americans have been quite pleased with ourselves because we were able to elect a black man to the highest office in the land. I would argue that we may have overcome something, but it is not bigotry. The day we will really know we have overcome bigotry is the day we elect a black, Atheist, lesbian–THAT would be a feat.

Inherent in the post-election discussions of race and politics is the conclusion that because large segments of our population have moved away from open racism, we are beyond bigotry. Nothing could be further from the truth; we have simply traded one for another, or several others, as the case may be. And these latest forms of intolerance and discrimination are often made more palatable through religion, as open racism against blacks used to be.

Because of religion and its ever-encroaching move into the political spectrum, Americans were forced to live through an administration that would not allow medical research on single cells to help find cures for diseases in people who are alive right now. Because of religion, pro-life politicians gain support from citizens whose actual interests are ignored in favor of policies that benefit the extremely wealthy. Because of religion, all over the country laws like Proposition 8 proliferate.

In spite of Obama’s election, what America has not given up and seems loathe to give up, regardless how far backward we move socially, morally, and legally, is religion. Why should it? Religion allows people to vilify those they don’t understand. Simply claim that anything different from you is against your religion and you are protected by your God-given, inalienable right to believe.

It is truly a significant step in the right direction that a black man will be our president. It is evidence that progress is possible and that society is able to make changes that seemed impossible only decades earlier. Yet is seems to me that if we are ever able to really end bigotry, if we are ever able to end all forms of discrimination, we are going to have to take a cold, hard, honest look at religion and its role in the promulgation of hate and intolerance. Only then will we truly overcome.

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Regardless of your politics, having a black man running for president has been good for one thing:  it has sussed out all the secret racism that has been seething under the surface in this country for years.  People who felt unable to express their nasty views publicly seem galvanized by the knowledge there are others just like them and are now willing to put their racism out there on display.  Terrorist attacks too have brought the issue to the fore, letting racists vent their hatred against people from the middle east all in the name of supposed fear of terrorism.

Obvious loathing for Mexicans isn’t even a secret.  Public officials and citizens claim to want immigration reform to “protect American workers.”  They tout limited Spanish instruction in southwestern schools and propose English-only referendums sold under the patronizing aegis of wanting to help Mexican children assimilate into American culture.  It’s all just racism.

I have often suggested it has not been publicly okay to be racist against blacks, but a person can get away with being racist towards Mexicans and Arabs.  Hating blacks is moving back out of the closet.  Perhaps the acknowledgment that it is going on will help kill it once and for all, although I don’t expect this to happen overnight.

Racism is the epitome of ignorance.  It is the Parable of the Cave come to life.  It is the philosophy of The Other.  It brings some sort of pitiful security to the hater who feels some protection in perceived superiority, unwilling to admit base and immoral fears.  I personally cannot fathom why someone’s skin color should scare someone enough to hate them, but it happens.  It happens all the time.

Racism is confusing.  There are members of my family who are blatantly racist. My mother was the oldest of seven children.  When my mom was six, my grandmother divorced my biological grandfather.  With three children in tow, she married a Navy man and had four more children.  When the youngest child was 8, my grandmother developed cancer.  Over the next four years, she lived and died a harrowing death, her body completely eaten by the disease.

By the time my grandmother died, my mom had moved out, married my father, and had two little girls.  The rest of the children were in various phases of growing up.  My mom’s step-father was the man I called Grampa.  He was the generous person we visited on every holiday.  When my biological father physically abused my mother, my Grampa helped her out, offering financial and emotional assistance.  He did not date or remarry until his youngest child was in her early twenties and married.  He was a Navy man who fought in World War II.  He was a good man who worked hard and took amazing care of his family.  And he was a racist.  He is still a racist.

I know others with similar family members, the grandparents who give them everything yet hate black people, the step-father who was kind, but rails against Mexicans in restaurants.  It is such a complex problem.  Interestingly, in all of the cases I know of good people with loving family members who happen to be racists, none of us are willing to do much about it except to sit silently, thinking these people are old and will never change, that they have good in them too.  Perhaps in our complicity we are perpetuating the problem.  I don’t know.  It is truly a conundrum.

Wow

That’s about all I can say.  Wow.  Today I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR.  They were talking about the primaries, Edwards dropping out, how it’s all shaking down.  Anyway, this guy called in and identified himself as a “White, male Southern Democrat.”  He voted for Hillary in the primary, even though it won’t count.  He then informed Ira that even though he’s a Democrat (supposedly), he’d vote for McCain over Obama because Obama is black.  He said he has “Lots of friends who feel the same way.”

For Christ’s sake, people, are you fucking serious?  You have to be kidding.  What is it with people?  Their thinking (if you can call it that) makes no sense.  They claim ideologically to believe in the Democratic party, but wouldn’t want a black man for president because of the color of his skin?  How does that affect his ability to do his job?  Is this caller afraid that Obama won’t get respect as president because he is black?  He couldn’t articulate a reason, other than he’s black.  He’d rather have a woman than a black man.

Man, I hope one or the other of them wins, just so it isn’t a damn white man.  I want something other than what has been to challenge these people out there who CARE about this stuff.  The only difference it makes is in their reaction to it!  If there were no reaction, if there were no “other” in the color or the gender, then the job would be what is important.  Instead, in their racism and misogyny they create issues that don’t actually exist.

Gads.  I sometimes wonder if there will ever be change.

Revolution

I have been thinking a lot about change. I am beginning to understand, on a more than superficial level, why we end up in revolution. Change can be so damn slow. It’s actually more remarkable when things change quickly because deep, fundamental societal change takes generations.  Revolution may be our only method in many instances to institute change, whether the revolt be violence or Ghandi. I have been seeing this on a micro level, which has made me it more obvious to me on the macro level.  Change takes damn forever. I have been working in an office where nothing really changes. It is such a dysfunctional place and has been that way for over a decade.  Nearly two, actually. There are people there I call the “institutional toxins” because they are part of the institution and never go away. The place stays completely and utterly dysfunctional. And office procedures and systems do not change either. Occasionally new systems come in, but the movement towards them is reluctant and gradual.

When I began working there in 2003, they were still using a DOS-based word processing program that I knew from personal experience had become Windows-based in 1993. That year they switched to the latest of that program, but they are still using it even though it has had two further incarnations. And they use a 1988 DOS-based client management program. Change to a system from the current decade has been promised for over a year, but there is always an excuse why it doesn’t happen.  By the time they put in that system, it will be 2015 and we will have moved onto an entirely different platform.

I suppose I should not be surprised at any of this because it is the owner of the company who refuses to change, and as long as he refuses to change, it will continue to trickle down. He pretends to modify some things, but the behavior doesn’t follow, and neither do real modifications.

But this got me thinking about societal changes. I am actually amazed we are where we are with racism and sexism and all those other ‘isms. People comment and question and remark how unbelievable it is that racism still exists. Lately I’ve begun to feel it’s amazing we’ve come this far in somewhat eradicating it. And no wonder there had to be riots and violence to get to this place. Humanity seems genuinely not to want to change much of anything.

Oh there are the few who are willing to do so, but look how backwards we have gone just in the last few decades. Forward and back, forward and back. Grinding into a different thought process. It’s like evolution. It seems like things are different because we have the ability to see how things were only fifty or so years back. But underneath, there is still that current of prejudice and bias that was there in 1955, even in people born twenty years ago.

I have a total non-sequitur…I heard a conversation on the radio yesterday with a plastic surgeon who performs laser hair removal. One of the radio hosts said she had heard scientists say we were “evolving towards hairlessness.” I got to thinking about that, and I do not think that is possible. I don’t think we will evolve towards anything anymore because there is no more human natural selection. We don’t let the so-called evolutionary “failures” die or stop procreating, so those “flaws” will continue. We may develop new features and breed those new features into each other, but the old features won’t go away if the humans with those old features do not die out or stop breeding. I am not advocating anything here; I’m just observing that evolution will be stopped from occurring on some level. Actually, I would advocate for stopping Paris Hilton from breeding, but that’s another matter entirely….  Hirsute people unite!  The hairless ones seek to eradicate you from existence.