Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Nigger Show

When racism masquerades as something else
Don't let the virulent hatred of Obama's presidency - veiled in "policy differences" - fool you. Just ask someone raised around bigotry.

'The nigger show."

I first heard this expression used to describe the Obama administration during a visit to my hometown in East Texas during the early summer of 2009. I understood what the epithet meant: Our minds are made up, the president lacks legitimacy, and there is nothing he can do that we will support. I was not surprised to hear such a phrase.

I grew up in the 1960s during the ragged end of the Jim Crow era, where many of the books in my school library were stamped Colored School, meaning they had been brought to the white school when the town was forced to integrate the public school system. I recall my parents had instructed me, before my first day of elementary school, not to sit in a chair where a black child had sat. And I remember my sister joked that her yearbook, when it appeared at the end of her first year of integrated high school, was in "black and white."

The outward signs of racism of my home state have now disappeared, but racial hatred remains. My father and his friends still use the word nigger to refer to all black people, and the people of my hometown don't hesitate to spout their racist rhetoric to my face, assuming I agree with them. I hold my tongue for the sake of having continued access to this kind of truth. I learned long ago how not to accept the hatred I was being taught and how to survive not having done so. More recently, I realized that I also learned another lesson: how to recognize racism when it masquerades as something else.

More than 40 years after my first experiences with racism, I am thousands of miles away in Rome, but surrounded by ghosts. Last year, I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for a community program called the Big Read, which sponsors activities to encourage communities to come together to read and discuss a single book. I chose Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, in part because I thought that some of the most salient issues in the novel - racism, classism, xenophobia, the Jim Crow era - were perhaps relevant to an increasingly diverse, contemporary Italy.

That there is racism in Italy is obvious to anyone who pays attention to current affairs. In fact, during the first week of the Big Read Rome, a story in one of Italy's national newspapers detailed the experience of a Nigerian woman being called sporca nera (essentially, dirty nigger) by two women she asked to stop smoking on a Roman bus.

But I never imagined that consideration of the novel would prove so relevant to a country that had just elected its first black president.

Ironically, until the election of Barack Obama, my discussions of racism in the United States seemed historical. I felt that with the passage of the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, the country had turned a corner, that the slow evaporation of overt racism was perhaps inevitable. Now, my personal experience of Southern racism feels current and all too familiar. A news story about the Big Read that appeared in La Repubblica on Sept. 20 (unaware that my grant was awarded during the Bush administration), presciently brought Rome, Obama, To Kill a Mockingbird, and racism together in its headline: "Obama brings antiracist book to Rome."

Jimmy Carter was lambasted for having recently explained that the vehemence with which many Americans resist Obama's presidency is an expression of racism. Carter was accused of fanning the flames of racial misunderstanding by labeling as "racist" what on the surface could be perceived as legitimate policy differences. Like Carter, as a white Southern man, I can see beyond the seemingly legitimate rhetoric to discern what is festering behind much of the opposition to Obama and to his administration's policy initiatives. I also have access, via the racist world from which I came, direct confirmation of the racial hatred toward Obama.

The veiled racism I sense in the United States today is couched, in public discourse at least, in terms that allow for plausible deniability of racist intent. And those who resist any policy initiative from the Obama administration engage in a scorched-earth policy that reminds me of the self-centered white flight, the abandonment of public schools, and the proliferation of private schools, that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools. The very people, like my own rural, working-class family back in East Texas, who stand to gain from the efforts of the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress are, because of their racism, willing to oppose policies that would benefit them the most. Their racism outweighs their own self-interest.

Unfortunately, racists in the United States have learned one valuable lesson since the 1960s: They cannot express their racism directly. In public, they must veil their racial hatred behind policy differences. This obfuscation makes direct confrontation difficult. Anyone pointing out their racist motivations runs the risk of unfairly playing "the race card." But I know what members of my family mean when they say - as so many said during the town hall meetings in August - that they "want their country back." They want it back, safely, in the hands of someone like them, a white person. They feel that a black man has no right to be the president of their country.

During a phone conversation a few weeks after Obama's election, my father lamented that he and my mother might have to stop visiting the casinos in Shreveport, La.: Given Obama's election, "the niggers are already walking around like they own the place. They won't even give up their seats for white women anymore. I don't know what we're going to do with 'em."

My students often ask me how I managed to avoid accepting the lesson in racism offered by my family. From the time I was 4 or 5 years old - roughly the same age as Scout Finch, the narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird - I recall knowing that I didn't agree with racism. More important, my paternal grandmother provided me with the encouragement that I could ignore what I was being taught. She provided me with the courage to resist.

My grandmother hoped that my father and his father represented the last generations of the type of Southern man that had shaped her life - virulently racist, prone to violence, proud of their ignorance, and self-defeatingly stubborn. It was a type of Southern man that she hoped and prayed I could avoid becoming.

However, my father and his father were not the last of their kind; their racial hatred has been passed on. My grandmother, if she were alive, would recognize the same tendencies among many of the people who shout down politicians and bring guns to public rallies. She would also see how the only change they have made is to replace overt racist epithets with more euphemistic language.

Rather than seeing my home state and its racist attitudes, slowly, over time, pulled in the direction of more acceptance, the country as a whole has become more like the South, the racial or cultural equivalent of what is called the Walmartization of American retail.

It might be easy to see literature as impotent in the face of the persistence and adaptability of racism. But I continue to believe in the transformative potential of literature and its ability to provide an alternative view of the world. And for children who are not lucky enough to have grandmothers like mine, I believe that books like To Kill a Mockingbird can provide inoculation against the virus that is racism.


by Carlos Dews, author, a professor of English literature, and chairman of the Department of English Language and Literature at John Cabot University in Rome.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Aspenia, the Italian journal published by the Aspen Foundation Italy.

James C. Collier

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11 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful post. As a Black child of the 60's, I feel you.

parvenu said...

Bravo to Carlos Dews for a very insightful article. However the difference between Roman racism and American racism is huge. A cardinal rule for racism around the globe is that each pocket of racism is highly customized as shaped by social traditions unique to that specific geographical area.

American racialism has been shaped by the unique social character of America as it evolved over more than three centuries. The American character has not only been shaped by the development of its commerce over the centuries but it is colored by the European character of its founders and other later immigrants to its shores.

I prefer to use the term NEGROPHOBIA rather than racism to identify the epidemic social disease so rampart throughout America. The phobic aspects of this social disease is what stirs strong feelings of anxiety in white people when they are accused of being racist, for in this accusatory moment the depth of their Negrophobia is unveiled to them. The Term Negrophobia as defined by Webster's dictionary is the "fear or hatred of Negroes", and is the most suitable word to describe the behaviors of white people during their everyday encounters with Negroes across the nation. Unfortunately the term racist or racism does not explicity identify which form of Negro rejection is being exhibited by a white person during such black and white encounters. Generally violence arises as a distinct possibility during a black and white social encounter if the white person harbors intense hatred of Negroes. Whereas, violence is generally non-existent during a black white social encounter if the white person harbors an intense fear of Negroes. This is the reason that NEGROPHOBIA is a far more definitive term for white rejection during a black white social encounter than the non-specific term racist.

Negrophobia is so entrenched in this country that even some white folks that work and socialize frequently with their Negro friends subconsciously harbor strong Negrophobic feelings. Through the long use of unique coping mechanisms they are able to consciously suppress their Negrophobic feelings and anxieties.

Thus, in respect to Carlos Dews' observation of white racism in America, it reached epidemic levels long before the antibellum period in America, so it persists in virtually every nook and cranny across America today.

John IV said...

Before I even Got to the authors credits at the end, this essay felt like a liberal elitist's attempt to slander conservative opinion's.

While the incidents of racist comments he mentions tend to punch one in the face metaphorically, its his supernatural ability to detect racism in normal comments that kills any legitimacy he may have. How is it that conservatives are racist whan a black democrat is in the white house ( obama ) but they are just uneducated hicks when a white democrat is in the white house ( clinton) when they make the same comments about taking back thier country? I do wonder if his "relatives" are Tea Party Activists? Or worse! Republicans?

I can not imagine that there are no black conservatives that are not deeply concerned about Obama's policies. How would this Old White english professor in rome describe them? Uneducated hicks? ;)

Carlos Dews entire commentary screams elitism. A liberal, elitist, know it all, attitude, and then I see he's a University Professor of English in Rome. How appropriate :(

Thrasymachus said...

Ok, so if you disagree with Obama on anything you *are* a racist. Policy differences are just a cover for this. I'm glad we have that cleared up.

Jael said...

Another shallow, guilt-ridden educated white guy's Status-quo observations of "racism" in "Amerikkka" and the world.

"... self-centered white flight, the abandonment of public schools, and the proliferation of private schools, that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools."

I wouldn't call it "self-centered." I would call it "self-preservation" as I look at the attitudes and culture of the children who exit the public schools in my area on a daily basis. It would be remiss of me as a parent to sacrifice my child to this in order to be deemed "unselfish."

Ignorant, "racist" white people in the South and the legacy of their attitudes are such an easy target with the "race relations" pundits. Carlos Dews' explorations (although they are his own and are his reality and do indeed express a reality) are just so "safe" for Amerikkka to take in. The hypocrits-on-high want America to "have a dialogue" about "race" but every truth a white person observes and speaks will be considered "racist" ... why even bother to expose yourself to this politically-correct mind-screw perpetrated by those who want to keep themselves in the power seat through stoking the fires of perpetual guilt and perpetual victimhood?

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, an elitist author no doubt.

What few seem to care to come to terms with is true racism, holding one's skin color against him or her, is rare in America.
They refuse to believe that fact as that refusal also allows them to remain racially self righteous and ignore their own self examination.

People's actions speak louder than any skin color and the actions of the people that continue to spout the racial epitaph that acting right is acting white and something we absolutely must not do only aggravate race relations.

Until self examination reveals the truth to people that continue to hide behind and use race as a trigger to bemoan their station in life that they themselves created racial tensions will not decrease.

This includes politics.......

MBogus said...

I have to agree with the elitist labeling that the majority of responders have elicited. What Mr. Dew so casually omits is that Jim Crow, the KKK, and Southern racism were all conceptions of the Democrat party. What he also fails to mention is the vehement opposition of just about every civil rights era law by the Democrat party as well.

Being a black man and having the opportunity to grow up in cities that were 90% black and white, I can honestly say that for every white person that casually uses the term "nigger" to describe blacks, there's a proportionate number of blacks that use equally derogatory terminology to describe whites; just as every country in the world has a derogatory term to describe other racial and ethnic groups. It really nothing new and the realist in me knows that you can't change what's in a person's heart.

Keeping the focal point on the authors assumption that any opposition to Obama's policy direction by white America is merely thinly veiled racism, I shudder when I think about the fact that no one in this country can criticize any member of the black community lest be called a racist, unless that black person is a conservative.

Still, Mr. Dew's article is great at giving insight as to how the left continues to proliferate the racism angle in lieu of any debate on the merits of the opposition's argument.

Anonymous said...

Just as many, many, white citizens could have cared less what Obama's skin color was and voted for him for his election promises now many of them have decided they made a mistake and it continues to have absolutely nothing to do with his skin color.

I did not vote for him but it had nothing to do with his skin color.
When he got into office I thought ok, lets see what he can do.

I didn't make a mistake with my vote and it still has nothing to do with his skin color.

But of course Pelosi the left don't care as long as they can spread the racism lie to hopefully garner votes when all that tactic is doing is spreading black against white racism.

Sickening....

Cherie said...

The Obama organization effectively implemented the "billy club" of racism to essentially silence any serious debate of his policies during his campaign. If opposition was raised or his qualifications questioned - that person was accused of racism. This was even used against former President Clinton...(who used to be called the first black president). The fact remains that over 50 million people voted for OBama - the majority of them white.
This is article is another example of the manner elitists use racism to obscure facts. Obama is an intelligent person with many qualifications. However, it should not be assumed that typical policy differences with the administration, (which every president must face) should be automatically classified as racism.
It makes the Obama administration appear weak, if every argument is countered by cries of racism, rather than with real policy solutions. Certainly we have come too far to look for the "bigot boogey man" around every corner.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like Obamas policies and thats why i didn't vote for him; with Rev Aint Wright Saul Alinsky and Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn as friends, also supporting a partial birth abortion bill, etc. that was the reasons. I know that the tea party movement isnt racist, its just the fact that many blacks dont believe it and not go, so, there not photographed and the mainstream media uses it.

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with the author of this article and former President Jimmy Carter. Racism is alive and well in politics and in the United States of America. It's manifestation comes in the form of disrespect, personal attacks and euphemisms.

During the presidential election and even to this day there are those that continually question whether or not Barack Obama is a citizen. The same people are also questioning whether or not he is a muslim and carrying signs to rallies calling him Hitler or a communist. On September 9, 2009, Senator Joe Wilson heckled the President by yelling "you lie" during a speech on healthcare given by Pres. Obama to Congress. News reports commonly refer to him as Obama or Barack or Barack Obama and not President Obama. I do not recall a president that has been more disrespected than our current President.

It would be naive to believe that breaking the color barrier for U.S. Presidents would not come with significant obstacles and pit falls that would impact a presidency even if 69 million people voted for the candidate. Being the first black person to do something that has been historically fulfilled by white people is threatening to some. Just take a look at the similarities of the first black president and first black baseball player.

Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues and he played for the Dodgers. Some of his teammates insinuated that they would rather sit out than play along side Robinson. Similarly, the Republican Party decided immediately after the 2008 presidential election (before any legislation had passed) that they would not work with this president and has sat out while the current administration has struggled to rebuild our economy. This decision to not work with this president was made despite the efforts of the White House to build a White House Staff of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Robinson was also the target of rough play that resulted in him receiving a seven inch gash to his head, being called a nigger by opposing team and being told by critics that he was not qualified for the major leagues. Similarly, the White House has been so bombarded with questions about the President's birthplace and whether or not he is a muslim that they have refused to answer any further questions related to these subjects. These questions speak to whether or not he is qualified to be president. The name calling is well documented and range from being called a nigger at Tea Party Rallies to the common use euphemisms like "we want our country back" and "Its time to take control of our government".

People that disagree with the policies of the current administration should be able to do so without being called racist. However, when you begin smear campaigns that are so personal in nature and disrespectful prior to any legislation being passed and when you begin to bring guns to rallies or when politicians come out and say that their goal is to see the president fail, there is something else other than politics going on.