Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
[EDITORIAL NOTE: With former President Jimmy Carter's declaration on Tuesday that racism was behind Congressman Joe Wilson's shouted disruption during President Obama's health care address last week, racism is moving to the front of public discussion. Today, Saul Friedman supplies some personal and historical perspective.]
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, racism, a noun, is defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
I was a young man working in an Indiana steel mill many, many years ago when I learned from my black roommate the subtleties of the disease of racism, and that it was (and is) not simply about prejudice and discrimination. That disease, which we hoped had abated in the last elections, has not left our bodies.
What President Barack Obama is facing from his mostly Republican opponents and other federal government hating right-wingers, many from the Old Confederacy, is nothing but dictionary definition racism. Congressman Addison Graves (Joe) Wilson’s outburst was not just boorish; it came from deep down in his South Carolina heritage. But all of us who are white need to understand that none of us is immune to the tinge of the racism that remains as the greatest national sin.
My roommate had some annoying habits, which I now forget. But one day, when I was biting my tongue about his latest annoyance, he said, “Why don’t you express your anger at me? C’mon, get angry! You can get angry with me and not be a racist.”
He was right. Was I indulging him because he was black and I thought that’s the annoying way black people act? Or was I afraid my own prejudices were showing? After all, this was years before the civil rights movement and whites did not socialize with blacks in that part of the country. In fact, one night when we went to Chicago for dinner, we were confronted by three racist white guys. No one was hurt, but I was ashamed that I failed to come to my friend’s defense.
Fast forward a decade, after serving in the army with blacks as well as whites, when I had my first journalism job covering the police beat for a Houston paper. I was from New York, and encountered unadulterated, entrenched, southern racism, the historic belief that blacks were inferior beings.
Every public facility and most shops was segregated or barred black people. The bus I rode to work had a color line, which I broke when I could. Blacks did not get their pictures in any of the three papers. Black defendants were beaten for confessions, but I couldn’t get that in the paper because who would take the word of a n------r over a police officer? I need not repeat the dehumanizing epithets that referred to black people. And black-on-black murders were not covered because they were considered “misdemeanor murders.”
Only later, when Dr. Martin Luther King’s Montgomery bus boycott became national news did the paper send me to see what was going on, mostly out of fear that it would spread to segregated Houston.
But I got relief from what I considered the stifling, backward south when I was selected as a Nieman Fellow in 1962, to spend a year at Harvard, studying race, among other things. My teachers included two of the finest minds on the psychology, social science and origins of racism in America – the late Gordon Allport and Thomas F. Pettigrew.
I say “racism in America,” for I learned from them, among other insights, that American racism was unique. Unlike other nations that brought in slaves (Brazil and Argentina) who became integrated in and enriched their societies, American blacks remained slaves or outsiders, unlike white indentured immigrants. For the slaves were deemed not human, but some inferior beings. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution considered each slave three-fifths of a man. And by considering blacks as lesser beings, the founders got around the promise that “all men were created equal.”
Eighty-one years later, the United States Supreme Court, with a 7-2 majority, held in the infamous Dred Scott decision that Scott, an escaped slave, and all other African-Americans brought to the country as slaves, were not entitled to citizenship or the right to sue because they were chattel, property, less than human.
During the Civil War, South Carolina being the first state to secede and fire on United States forces, the issue, plain and simple, was whether the states of the confederacy could continue to enslave black people. If the issue was “states’ rights,” it was the states’ right to own other human beings.
Dred Scott was never overturned by the court, but was rendered moot by the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, and the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship to former slaves. But these “reconstruction amendments” were imposed on the defeated, but defiant south, which replied with Ku Klux Klan terror, the Black Codes and Jim Crow to nullify the Constitution and force blacks back into semi-slavery.
And as late as 1898, the Supreme Court, in Plessy, legalized segregation and the separation of the races, putting into law that Negroes were not fit to be in the same place – schools, theaters, stores - as whites. Not until 1954, when I was a reporter in Houston, was that overturned by Brown vs. Board of Education.
That decision met with massive resistance in much of the south and is still honored more in the breech. And, as Lyndon Johnson warned, the campaigns of Martin Luther King, Jr. along with the passage of the various civil rights laws in the Sixties sent many a racist Democrat into the arms of the racist Republicans who have ruled most of the Confederate South, with cries against big federal government and for states’ rights. Sound familiar?
They are very thin disguises for old fashioned racism, the belief that a black man could not possibly become our president, Dr. Pettigrew told me in a recent conversation.
“The perfect example is the birthers’ myth that he (Obama) was born in Kenya despite all evidence. The reality of a black president is simply more than the far right can accept. Hence the birthing myth and similar movements that require Freud to explain.”
Pettigrew noted with approval New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd’s assertion that the “unspoken word” in Joe Wilson’s outburst was, “You lie, boy!” Said Pettigrew, “That was straight out of South Carolina racism.” South Carolina’s racist legacy includes “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, South Carolina’s late 19th century governor and senator who attacked and killed black federal troops to build a white supremacy movement.
South Carolina has also given us Strom Thurmond, who was Wilson’s mentor; Senator Jim DeMint who boasted he wants to “break” Obama’s presidency, and Governor Mark Sanford who declared the right of his state to refuse federal funds. Wilson is a longtime member of Sons of Confederate Veterans, which (according the Southern Poverty Law Center) has been taken over by radical neo-Confederates who favor secession and call slavery a “benign institution.”
Indeed, said Pettigrew, the unprecedentedly vitriolic personal assault on Obama by right-wing commentators and white crowds whose protests are mostly vague nonsense, is a racist campaign. Its aim, said Representative Jim Clymer, a veteran black Democrat from South Carolina, “has a lot to do with delegitimizing him as president.”
Barbara Ehrenreich and Dedrick Muhammed began their piece on black poverty in the September 13 New York Times by observing that the economic downturn and the first black president have provoked “a surge of white racial resentment, loosely disguised as populism.” But is it “resentment” rather than racism, the failure to believe that a black person can be president? Isn’t Glenn Beck projecting when he says Obama is a “racist” who hates white people.
Unfortunately, aside from Dowd, much of the press – including several blacks – seem to dance around the obvious racism of the mobs of so-called teabaggers who didn’t protest or show disrespect towards George Bush’s many lies when he tricked the nation into a war with Iraq, or when he spent hundreds of billions on the war. They are out to get Obama, one way or another, because he’s black as well as liberal.
I listened to endless commentaries about Wilson’s shout-out; they called it insulting and the like, but no one mentioned racism. Washington Post Columnist Colbert King, a black man and a friend, rightly condemned the assaults on Obama as dangerous, but he barely mentioned race. Democratic official Donna Brazile, who is black, declined to “put all the president’s opponents in a box.”
Pettigrew told me, “many will think it a stretch to call Wilson’s outburst racism, but that overlooks that no one has done that to a white president even when they were lying...” Pettigrew, whose paper on Obama and the 2008 election will soon be published, saw hope in the number of young southerners who voted for Obama in some border states. Indeed, he and Allport pioneered in work that showed racism can be overcome in interpersonal relationships.
But in the deep, old south, older white men, he said, have not lost the racism of their fathers and grandfathers. He rejected the optimism of some commentators that we were in a “post-racist” time and he predicted “some of this racist backlash. Racism has remained strong in the USA.”
Note to reporters, commentators and analysts. This vicious, unrelenting criticism is not about conservatism or liberalism, bigger or smaller government or states’ rights. This is about racism directed towards the duly elected president. And it’s dangerous.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Lois Cochran: The Goodbye Day