Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sara Robinson and others on Racism, past and present

This morning's best read comes from Dave Neiwert's blog. The essay I want to highlight is by Sara Robinson, his co-blogger, whose insightful contributions have enriched the site often since her appearance there last year. Check out her essays from the sidebar.

[Before I forget, a note about Neiwert's latest post, too. His piece about pop journalism is excellent, spotlighting how TV (and other) journalism continues to slide deeper into an editorial quagmire, unable or unwilling to mark the difference between fact and opinion. (Here's a great link to an Onion takeoff illustrating the point.)]

Sara Robinson's What's Lynching Got To Do With The Price of Cotton? looks at a connection between economics and racism, particularly how the number of lynchings in the South correlated, literally, with the rise and fall of the value of cotton. She cites a live journal comment that included this comment.

In the "King Cotton" regions of the South in that era, there was a dramatic economic gulf between the major planters and employers on the one hand (all white), and the day laborers, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers on the other (some white and some black). Predictably, the black workers were on average even poorer than the whites. So when cotton prices dropped, white and black workers shared all the typical stressors of poverty, though in differing amounts. But this economic pressure brought about another stressor for African-Americans that was completely absent for whites: increased risk of being murdered by an angry mob.

She then enlarges on the point to include a larger picture affecting all of us.

...the study is striking in that it shows very directly how a poorly-performing economy correlates with extreme forms of racial violence. Whether it's violence against African-Americans in the South during the lynching years, Asians on the West Coast in the first part of the 20th century, or Mexicans in today's faltering market, a depressed white working class always means those just below them in the economic pecking order are sitting ducks for a wave of vigilante violence. The more you look at the history, the clearer it appears that the cause-and-effect relationship is both ubiquitous and inevitable. It's a fact of American life that whenever the economy tanks, people of color are going to pay the price in blood.

This is not a closed chapter in our history. It is part of the fabric of American society that remains intact. Her comments are tough reading, but important to any thoughtful person. They struck a nerve or two as indicated in the comments thread, but even that exchange underscores the reality and importance of what she said.

Finally she points to a piece from another blog to which she contributes as one of a group of four. I don't know the identity of "Lower Manhattanite" but he is described as having "...close to twenty years experience as a writer/performer for television, radio, and stage productions, and is also a graphic designer. Married, he is raising three children (hell...teenagers) in New York City."

His essay “Do you understand where you are?” will take some time to read, but what else do you have to do this afternoon? He recalls a family reunion that took place fourteen years ago which brought together in a small South Carolina town a new and naive generation of black young people from social settings importantly different from that of a small Southern town. Racism they had faced, of course, but the brutality of its expression came unexpectedly.

There was a note about the local nightspots. Namely, that there were none. Save for the juke joint down the road a piece across from the “Fish Shack”, and of course, the few spots some 35 minutes away in Wilmington. But one of the note's points of interest got some of the young people going. It stated, that after 8:00 P.M., NO ONE WAS TO GO DOWN ACROSS THE RAILROAD TRACKS, PAST THE GREEN HOUSE (an actual green-colored house), AS THAT WAS THE DEMARCATION LINE BETWEEN FREE-GOING COUNTRY, AND KLAN TERRITORY.

Doing so was, according to the note, “tempting fate” and “taking your life into your own hands”.

Many of the assembled—particularly the younger ones, were agog at this special note, thinking it was a.) a joke, b.) a silly wive's tale, and worst of all, c.) an open provocation to their God-given right to flex their northern-bred muscle and “rights”. After much clamor, older relatives prevailed upon the upset youngers, and implored them to please observe the warning. It was not a frivolous one.

Of course, you can guess what would happen that night. While many of us went into Wilmington to celebrate, bringing big-city, New York, New-Jack “Swang“-style to the Carolina backwoods, a clutch of the set opted to cross those tracks—to saunter past that “green house”, and park alongside a stretch of road, with a nice, expensive car providing the music, a trunk cooler full of drink, and parrrrrrrr-taaaay!

What happened is not pretty but not all that remarkable to those of us who still live in the South. No, there were no lynchings. No one was killed. The physical consequences were not dramatic enough to make the papers. But the social poison that still runs in many Southern veins was clearly and despicably displayed. The trauma of the aftermath was enough to make an old man cry.

Go now.
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these words.

It is the year 2007. And as much as we may try to think otherwise, we live in a country where White teenagers will still fight over who can, and who can not sit under a fucking tree during recess at school, based on the color of their skin. For all the crowing about the “browning of America”, and how the kids are un-learning the racism inculcated in the American fabric, this incident should give every one of us pause.

Pause because it speaks to the reality of what we're actually confronting here.

If these kids...these supposedly, rapidly blind-to-color kids will fight over a scraggly patch of grass, don't stand here and try to tell me that their fathers and mothers—the generation presently in control of this country—aren't actively fighting Black folks' inclusion in the more important arenas of participation in the American mosaic.

Do not look me in the face from my TV, and tell me from your visit to New Orleans Mr. President, that Kanye West—crazy as he is—was wrong. The carnival that is American Idol, where “Ohmigosh! Look at all those talented Black people doing so well—aren't they doing so well?” isn't enough of an anesthetic to numb me to the constant, pounding ache that is the reality of not being Black in America—but rather, what dealing with the perceptions from others about one's being Black in America does to you.

Jena brings it all sickeningly home. Teens. Kids. Decades at least, removed from the last picnic/lynching to take place in their neck of the woods, by so-called decent people, somehow knew, in their stupid little turf battle, just what mega-trope, what ultimate nullifier to go to to let those wandering n*ggers know that they meant business about keeping one's place. And then, when those Black kids defiantly said “Better check your calendar, motherfuckers. It is the year 2007!”, those Black teens saw the second wave, the real shock troops—those silly, turf-crazed White kids' parents, jump up with the old-school, authority smackdown all too familiar Post -Reconstruction, to uppity/not-having-it Black folks.

We can sing “kum-ba-ya” til our throats sound like Miles Davis after a bender of Sloe Drano Fizzes, but at the sick core of America, racism still infirms this country's aspiration to greatness.


Tom said...

Racism or race separatism is as normal as the wind.When economic downturns occur people are shocked backinto an evolutionary survival mode. Race again becomes important.In economic so called good times peoples natural instincts are dulled.

ilona said...

lots of hand wringing over white racism, but no note of black American vs Black African immigrant? against Hispanic? Asian? It happens so often that it is par for the course.

It's an egregious oversight. Racism is not just a white man's problem. It is a human sin problem which finds expression through many races against one another and cultures against each other. This preoccupation with just a white expression of it obscures the problem and evades the remedy: exposure, disapproval, and remediation.

... but I love you for seeking social justice, Hoots.

Hoots said...

Thank you Tom and ilona for your comments. Both seem to strike almost the same note. I responded to both in another post rather than try to fit my thoughts into a comment.