RACIAL TARGET: James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing in a parking lot when two carloads of white teenagers allegedly jumped him, yelling racial epithets, before driving over him with a pickup truck.
A little less than a year ago, I pleaded with African Americans to stop using the word “racism” as a kneejerk response to any sort of problematic situation or behavior. As a way of demonstrating how possible it is, I vowed to abstain from using “the r-word” for at least a year, as a way of doing my part to tone down the rhetorical flame wars that have come to dominate contemporary political conversation.
My point in doing so was not to deny that racism exists, but rather, by temporarily banishing it, to allow the term “racism” to be reserved only for situations that truly call for it. The truth is that while racism still exists in various forms today, trying to call it out without subscribing to a commonly held and understood definition becomes problematic as racial dynamics in the United States of America continue to evolve. In other words, what racism is and looks like to me may be different from what it is and how it looks to you … if we can’t get that ironed out, how can we solve the race problem as it currently exists?
* * *
Today, I’ve broken my vow.
I’m sorry that I couldn’t go the whole year. I wanted to. Really, I did.
I probably would’ve been in the clear had I not read about the senseless vehicular homicide of James Craig Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi. According to eyewitness accounts and video footage, Anderson had been beaten severely by at least two young White males (whose names I will not dignify by referencing here), who had set out with the intent of bringing harm to the first Black person they ran across. And after one of them had left the scene, the other one literally ran over the victim with his truck … then bragged about it later at a local McDonald’s.
Let me say this slowly, so as not to be misunderstood.
THAT. WAS. RACIST.
* * *
That’s not all it is, of course. It’s also the work of a sociopath, whose behavior shocked his friends enough to cause one of them to lie when asked if she knew the assailant, and who, according to a local pastor, had a history of bullying other teenagers.
But make no mistake; this crime was mostly about racism.
The most sociologically accepted definition of racism is that it consists of race prejudice plus power.
The reason why the “plus power” part is added in there is because charges of racism are usually too easily dismissed by people who claim immunity because no one can see inside the heart. People in the public eye accused of racism, according to Jay Smooth of ill doctrine, usually try to turn public attention away from what they did and tend to frame the issue around who they are (“I’m not a racist! That’s not who I am!”).
Focusing on what a person did is usually a better way to resolve minor incidents, because the alternative is combing through the racial history of everyone who ever makes a racially insensitive comment or forwards a racist email, and nobody has that kind of time.
But in this particular crime, context matters. And you don’t have to be a regular on CSI to know that these crimes were, well … racist as hell.
If it had taken place in rural Oregon or Montana, I might’ve been willing to view this crime only as a momentary lapse in judgment. But the troubled racial history of Mississippi, too numerous to even attempt to recount here, casts an ominous light on this whole affair. The rest of the details just fill in the blanks.
Fundamentally, the beating and subsequent homicide of James Craig Anderson was the result of two White males, accompanied by friends, using their locus of power to inflict pain and suffering on, quite literallythe first Black person they saw. It was about them feeling entitled to inflict such pain by virtue of their racial identity, and expecting to get away with it for the same reason.
And whether or not it should be considered a hate crime, or whether or not hate crimes are a necessary classification in our criminal justice system… all of that is beside the point.
The point is this:
If THAT isn’t racist, then just forget it … the word no longer exists.
* * *
Now that I’ve spent hundreds of words stating the obvious, it’s worth reiterating my previous stance.
If we as Black people can tamp down on our use of the word “racism” as a catch-all equivalent to “wrongdoing by White people,” it will help to promote more effective communication from people across various ideological and racial boundaries.
But it’s also necessary for an entirely different reason.
The blight of institutional racism is a tragic stain on American history, and it is cheapened every time we apply that word to conflicts and incidents of a vastly inferior magnitude.
Especially when we do it over the Internet.
The repeated rhetorical equivalency of heinous crimes with comical misunderstandings has produced such a climate of jaded skepticism on the internet that the very phrase, “that’s racist” has morphed into a caricatured catchphrase meme, complete with its own alternative spelling (“thassraycess!”).
* * *
If the latest horrific crime in Jackson has taught us anything, it’s that THIS is the real legacy of racism in America.
So like I said, I’m sorry I couldn’t go the full year.
But I’m sorry to say, some of us Black folks couldn’t go a whole month, or even a whole week, without complaining about racism. And if those complaints are about something trivial, like whether or not Chris Brown gets the same kind of media coverage as Charlie Sheen, we ought to keep our mouths shut.
Growing up in the North, it can be puzzling to hear of Southern whites who insist on celebrating their racist past.
Whether it comes up in the hoisting of the rebel flag at a state capitol, or opposing the stripping of a Confederate soldier’s name from an elementary school, my simplistic, New York Yankee, public school education teaches that those folks are just clueless rednecks. The South was violent and intolerant compared to the North, we learned. During the Civil War, the bad guys wore gray and wanted to keep blacks enslaved. President “Honest Abe” Lincoln freed all of the slaves and kept America unified. During the civil rights movement, the good whites from up North went down South and helped black folks bear the dogs, water hoses, and end the lynchings. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached about his dream during the March on Washington and segregation finally ended.
But a good college education, deeper history books, and wisdom born of life experiences have taught me that America’s racial heritage is much more complex than that. Besides, living several years now in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area, the epicenter of America’s birth and the “War Between the States,” I understand the different sides of racial tension a lot better. While most blacks saw the war as a tragic but necessary event that led to their people’s freedom from slavery, many whites in Southern states saw it as an assault by the north on their heritage and sovereign rights. Both are true.
This year, as the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War nears (April 12, 1861, is recognized as the date of the war’s first shot), yet another firebomb from the past is flaming racial tensions in the Deep South. The Mississippi Division of Sons of Confederate Veterans has proposed a specialty license plate to honor Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. This “war hero” also led the 1864 Fort Pillow Massacre, where several disarmed black Union soldiers were killed while surrendering. Forrest was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Confederate veterans say Forrest and other soldiers were brave men who “put it all on the line” for a cause they strongly believed in. They were protecting their families, land, and livelihood. As for his Klan ties, Forrest renounced his membership later in life, in the same way that Supreme Court Judge Hugo Black and Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia had.
According to published reports, the state’s NAACP President Derrick Johnson said the license plate idea is offensive, mainly to black Mississippians who comprise 40 percent of the state. The Klan is “a domestic terrorist organization,” he said adding that the NAACP planned to insist Gov. Haley Barbour denounce the license plate.
Meanwhile, Barbour, who has GOP presidential nomination aspirations, has said he’s sure the proposal won’t pass in the state legislature and that if it does he won’t sign it; however, he refuses to denounce the license plate proposal outright. For Barbour, 63, it has been another misstep on race. Last year he claimed to have gone to integrated schools and that during the civil rights movement he just didn’t “remember it being that bad.” After Gov. Bob McDonald of Virginia, apologized for failing to mention slavery when he proclaimed April as “Confederate History Month,” Barbour said the controversy “doesn’t amount to diddly.”
Barbour is obviously pandering to the far right-white vote, but both he and the NAACP’s Johnson represent a deeper problem. When leadership is unwilling to have an honest open dialogue on race and retrench instead, it’s more likely the rest of us will follow to our predictable, polarizing positions behind the color lines.
In 1998, President Clinton, a Southerner, vowed to lead the country in an “unprecedented conversation about race.” It fizzled out, but at least he tried.
Now in 2011, with ironically, the first black president in office, we are perhaps even more polarized. After hearing Obama’s profound speech on race during the 2008 campaign, it seemed he might be the one to lead us to a more substantive conversation. But President Obama, a Northerner by way of Hawaii, and his administration are spooked by race. They avoid the discussion by any means necessary.
It’s sad, but maybe it’s best that the leadership on race come from the state, local, and personal level.
Gov. Barbour and Johnson of the NAACP could better serve Mississippians by flipping the predictable race conversation. Lead an open and honest discussion about race, instead. Use the opportunity of Confederate History Month to build a sense of respect and understanding of Mississippi’s black and white histories that are both true and inseparable. It could lead to healing and even racial reconciliation.
It could become a model for how we together acknowledge the dark and bright sides of America’s history.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Ailibeen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.
For the past 20 years, Brad Gaines has driven 175 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Russellville, Alabama, three times a year to visit the tiny cemetery where a friend he barely knew is laid to rest.
In 1989, after a collision on a typical football play, Gaines, a tailback for Vanderbilt, walked back to his team’s huddle, but Chucky Mullins, a safety for Mississippi, didn’t get up.
The state of Mississippi has a new civil and human rights curriculum for its public school students. It’s the first of its kind in the nation. Not bad for a state that Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said was “sweltering with the heat of injustice.”