Thursday, March 2, 2017

Race, politics and reasons for hope

Dr. Jelani Cobb, from his Twitter page
Ending his talk on a hopeful note, historian Jelani Cobb reminded his audience at Coe College, "People have won under far more difficult circumstances than the ones we currently face." Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker as well as professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, was at Coe to give the 14th Contemporary Issues Forum lecture. With a detailed sweep of American history, and speaking in front a of a slide show of racially charged images, he spoke of the centrality and inescapability of race from our earliest days until now.

Beginning with the Declaration of Independence, which had an anti-slavery clause removed by the Continental Congress, and the U.S. Constitution, which contains three clauses protecting or incentivizing slavery, race is not a "side order" to the history of the United States but "permeates the entire country." And this reality is inescapable, even for those who are not black. Recent acts of racist violence in Kansas and Washington, D.C. have seen white Christians killed because they were in the way of an attacker targeting blacks; Indians in Kansas and Wisconsin were killed because the attacker thought they were Iranian Muslims. Cobb recalled Martin Luther King, Jr.'s observation that "we are bound by an inextricable link of mutuality." Race relations are not someone else's problem.

Themes of grievance and fear recur in American racial history. The "Southern sense of Confederate victimhood" preceded Northern white response to the mid-century Great Migration, as well as backlashes against the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Nixon's southern strategy) and the 2008 election of Obama (the Supreme Court's striking down the Voting Rights Act, among other things). A surprising percentage of whites tell pollsters that life is harder for them while blacks have it easy. (NOTE: My own brief digging found a CBS News poll from June 2014 on the subject of whether whites or blacks have a better chance of "getting ahead in today's society." Whites were more likely to say chances were equal; blacks were more likely to say whites were advantaged. Very few members of either race said blacks were advantaged.)

Rape has been an alarming meme through all this period. A (fictional) black-on-white rape is the pivotal moment in D.W. Griffith's 1915 film Birth of a Nation, recurring in arguments for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, Donald Trump's announcement of his presidency in 2015 ("They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists"), and Dylann Roof's explanation to parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina of why he was shooting up their church. ("I have to do this, because you're raping our women and y'all taking over the world.")

Memes like All Lives Matter (in response to Black Lives Matter) reflect the majority's discomfort with our racial history and current reality and a desire to evade the real problem. "We may," he told someone during the Q-and-A after his speech, "spend the rest of our lives trying to undo what's being done now" in terms of poisonous presidential rhetoric and actual standing down from civil rights enforcement by the Department of Justice. And yet...

Along with the evasion, grievance and exploitation of fear, there has been throughout American history a "countervailing tradition... of people of conscience rising up in difficult times and standing for democracy." The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People grew out of a white race riot in Springfield, Illinois in 1909. Jane Addams's Hull House, the American Civil Liberties Union, the investigative journalists known as muckrakers and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s all grew out of intense social crises, to substantial positive effect. Which brought Cobb, on Tuesday night, to the encouraging words with which he ended his talk. Who's to say what might happen next?

EARLIER POST: "Akwi Nji on Choosing Justice over Comfort," 18 January 2017

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