Confronting racism in myself and others
There she was on Stephen Colbert’s show. She was beautiful. Photographs can be doctored up, but I’d seen too many of her (including the one on the book cover of “The New Jim Crow”) to be unaware. Michelle Alexander is one beautiful young woman. Besides which she’s smart—college professor smart. That’s what she is—a college professor at Ohio State University, who’s written this phenomenal aforementioned book. Not too long ago she was on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now.
But don’t get sidetracked, as I obviously have been, by Michelle’s beauty. It’s her message that’s most important. “Jim Crow” may be a vague phrase to many of you, but I grew up in Arkansas where Jim Crow was a reality. Not a human being was Jim Crow but rather an “it”—unwritten proscriptions which denied black people equality under the law. The polite term for black people then and there was “colored people.” Their drinking fountains, bathrooms, schools and even eating establishments were designated “for colored people,” and should they attempt to enter those used by the rest of the population, that is, the white part, they would be removed and not too gently removed, even perhaps with police escorts.
Michelle Alexander has provided the American people with a carefully researched book showing how black people, especially black men, have been incarcerated at rates and under conditions so blatantly unfair and illegal that it is a national disgrace: It’s the New Jim Crow, Segregations Through Incarceration. The book’s importance might be compared to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,”an 1852 anti-slavery novel which some say “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War.” It incidentally established some unfortunate stereotypes that are still with us. “The New Jim Crow” has not yet achieved a comparable success, but it should.
The racism that I grew up with was inculcated from birth. The presence of a patient hard-working African-American servant was as unthinkingly accepted as the presence of the daily newspaper every morning at the front door. She cleaned house, contributed to the making of the meals, cleaned up after every meal, made beds, scrubbed floors, etc. A maid I particularly remember was a wonderfully good-hearted and good-humored woman we children called “Nettie.” She called me “Miss Polly.” The relationship between the adults of my family and a procession of “Netties” was lop-sided to say the least. Salaries paid them were miserably low, but they managed to survive. If they became ill, some member of my family would see that they got medical care and I remember my mother bailing out one woman who had landed in jail.
Actually, there were two servants in our home; the second was a washerwoman who spent two days a week washing and ironing all of the dirty clothing and linen of that family of nine. At the end of her first day all the washing was left on the backyard clotheslines to dry. We children had to remove the clothespins, put the dried clothes in large baskets and and bring them into the dank dark basement. I hated this task and tried all kinds of maneuvers to avoid it. (That’s right. I was pretty spoiled.) The next day the washerwoman returned to iron all the clothing, including my grandfather’s starched white shirts, using a series of flat irons, which were heated over a gas jet. Oh yes, we had an electric iron, but my grandmother did not trust the washerwoman’s ability to use that iron. (I know. I know. I’m just telling it as it was.)
I never knew any young people of color as I was growing up. Undoubtedly, some of the series of maids had children, but we never met them nor was there ever any mention of them. There were no African Americans on the police force or in the fire department. Even the military remained segregated through World War II.
There was no dramatic moment at which I realized that all humanity is one and that we are all endowed with the same weaknesses and capabilities. It grew out of my acceptance of nonviolence during World War II when I worked for several years at an army camp. It was there that the futility and stupidity of war caught up with me. If all humanity is one then we are all equal.
I remember one incident during this period of flux when a friend and I were on a bus going from Arkansas to Louisiana. A young black mother got on the bus carrying a baby in her arms. There were no vacant seats on the bus. I said to my friend sitting beside me, “I’m going to get up and offer her my seat.” My friend replied, “If you do I will never speak to you again.” And so I sat. Shortly a young soldier gave her his seat. There have been other occasions when I have disappointed myself, and a few when I behaved well.
I must give credit to Minnesotans for most of my re-education. It certainly wasn’t textbook type learning. For example, years and years ago, I was talking to a close friend about racial differences and I said something to the effect that, “Of course, black people can’t help it if their brains are smaller than those of white people.” (Yes, I actually said it.) My friend was silent for a minute and then she burst out laughing. I was puzzled. She explained, “You’re far too intelligent to make comments like that, much less believe them.”
Today, I am keenly aware of the presence of racism in our society. It has not gone away. While ostensibly all the benefits of this democracy are available to all citizens, regardless of their race, sexual preference, gender, etc., the inequities of the past have not been eliminated. The African-American slaves freed by the Civil War were never provided any recompense at all. Most could not read and were not educated. The economic gap has not been closed in the past 150 years. Had each liberated slave received the disputed 40 acres and a mule (worth about $50,000 today), who can say what the result would have been.
The current slow-down of the economy has unduly affected African Americans. A 2011 study released by the Center for Responsible Lending presented data to support the claim that African Americans and Latinos are more than twice as likely to lose their home as white households. I’m not convinced that this is because African Americans are less savvy than whites but because the system has, once again, exploited them.
Democracy is not democratic when it comes to African Americans. Recently I received a traffic ticket that I disputed. As a result I had to visit the magistrate’s office where early one morning I found myself one of a minority of about three white people waiting along with about 15 African Americans to talk to a hearing officer. Obviously, there are not more African-American drivers than white in Minneapolis, yet the proportion was certainly not represented here. The answer is obvious. African Americans are being targeted.
In general, young African-American men are being profiled wherever they are. If you have any doubts, attend a meeting of the organization Communities United Against Police Brutality.
So we’re back to where we began. What do you think would have happened if Amy Senser had been a black welfare mother? I contend she would have been incarcerated weeks ago and would be serving a jail sentence today. Questions? Read Michelle Alexander’s book for answers.