The declaration on a recent PBS “NewsHour” was stunning: There was no racism until Barack Obama came on the scene, a Generation X panelist asserted. All those white nationalist groups, those militias, even the birthers are his fault. That’s like blaming Frederick Douglass for the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Had the young white panelist never heard of slavery or Jim Crow or Rosa Parks, or even of Mitch McConnell in 2008 urging Republicans to do nothing to help the newly elected, half-black president? How many shades of racism did she need to see before achieving recognition? Or, did she simply choose not to see at all, except for some recently visible racists opposing Obama apparently discomfiting her? So, it’s his fault.
She seems to live in a gated community of the mind.
A major reason racism of all kinds endures in America, of course, is that it is closeted, acknowledged in delicious privacy. Large swaths of the population refuse to publicly acknowledge that secret. “Ancient history,” a neighbor told me back in the 1970s. “I don’t know why you people keep bringing it up.” But he’d tell an ethnic joke in a flash.
James Baldwin more than 50 years ago pointed out that one major strategy of racists was to blame discrimination on its victims. If they’d just remain in their place, we could all go along smoothly.
When a nonwhite president was elected, that upended stereotypes, which in turn stirred some racists … so it was somehow Obama’s fault. As my older son used to say regarding his younger brother, “He made me hit him.”
By being academically outstanding, an Ivy Leaguer, as well as half-black, Obama has threatened not only illusions of racial superiority but class distinctions as well. He figured out how to rise in our not-entirely-meritorious society. Yet, perhaps in response, a nitwit at the University of Wisconsin garbed himself in a Halloween costume at a recent football game that mimicked Obama with a noose around his neck.
While it has been suggested that the miscreant be required to explain to the university’s black students what was funny about the costume, my own suggested punishment would be to require the youthful ignoramus to study America’s history of lynching, look at the photos of it, hear from the families of its victims. College is supposedly about learning, and in this context, learning is clearly necessary. There is real history there.
To his credit, Wisconsin’s athletic director, Barry Alvarez – noted for being color-blind as a coach – said he was “deeply troubled by the incident … and sorry for the harm it had caused.”
We should all be sorry, and at least a little ashamed, if we’re raising Gen Xers who think blacks or browns or yellows or reds “made me hit them.” Let’s stand up and defend our fellow citizens from bigotry.
Gerald Haslam is a California author whose 2006 novel “Grace Period” won this year’s Legacy Fiction Eric Hoffer Award. Contact Haslam at firstname.lastname@example.org.