The annoying persistence of racism: We have met the enemy and it is us!

10 Jun

I came to NC in 2003 to take a job that was newly created. I had broken all the rules with my career. I transitioned from high school teacher to community college administrator to community college faculty ( and chair of the faculty eventually) to research fellow at the Library of Congress to director at a Research 1 university also with an adjunct faculty appointment.. This voyage was almost unprecedented. I did not have degrees from any ivy league schools, did not have a voluminous publication record, had not written a book, had not appeared on television regularly. Nope I was just, and remain, a person who thinks education is both fun and rewarding.

I enjoyed all of my jobs and my transitions, that is until fairly recently. I suppose part of my malaise is caused by advancing age, exacerbated by the recent death of my mother, which reminds one of one’s mortality by making you realize you are next on the conveyor belt to oblivion, or whatever else may await.

In the past two years I have seen one inept and unethical boss leave, to be replaced by a woman who was incredibly unqualified, even for an interim and who came into the position believing she had just been granted primacy over everyone and everything on campus. She proceeded to offend, alienate and abuse everyone she felt she could while keeping up a facade of friendliness and good humor for those she wanted to dupe in order to keep her job and advance. She has now been, as the British would say, rendered redundant. Not, however, taking all of her mess with her.Both of these people became my boss primarily because they were able to convince the right people they were not dangerous to the status quo.  And in that they were absolutely genuine, they were not.

The new person who is now ensconced  remains to be figured out. But, there are bad signs, so I am losing my original hope for actual movement and action in social justice at my institution.Put quite frankly black folks sometimes are more interested in their own status and paychecks than in social justice for anyone. I am not sure if this is progress or regression. On the one hand one might be able to say that it is an indication that black people have “arrived” that we too can be self-serving, house slaves and drive an expensive car and live in an expensive house because our responsibility to our fellow blacks has been accomplished. Nobody can call you a ‘nigger’ in the workplace, or in pubic period,  with impunity, make you step off a sidewalk , or sit in the back of a bus. Many of the legal barriers supported by Jim Crow legislation have been struck down they might say and those black folks who are not doing well just need to work/study/try harder. Not my responsibility, I am going to get mine and keep it.

While they may not be making us sit in the back of the bus racism has not left, it has evolved. It is more subtle now, but if you know where to look the stains, blotches and stench of its presence are easy to find. Fewer than half the black males in NC graduate from high school. Black faculty represents fewer than 4% at most Research 1 universities nationwide and in NC, black infant mortality is twice as high as white infant mortality. There are only two ways you can look at these stats. Either blacks are inferior or racism is still at play. You do not have to wonder which one I espouse.

But, we cannot put this all at the feet of white folks. Where are the black people who are, at least in theory, more aware of this than anyone? Where are the protests? The letters to the editor? The mobilization of political action? I had to be talked into coming to NC because I had some stereotypical ideas about racism and the South. I am a plain spoken, some wold say uppity, black woman. I have always been confident that I know what I am talking about and I have never hesitated to make my opinions known. I have never had a reason not to . I told them all that when they were recruiting me and they promised me it would be fine. It has not been totally, but for the most part it has been.

However, what finally swayed my decision to come here was two things, the motto of the state ” To Be, Rather than to Seem” and the fact that 25% of the population is black. Here, I thought, is a state that has a motto that is very congruent with my belief all people should be themselves honestly and  without apology and in addition with that black population surely the black folks are well organized and powerful. Sounds good doesn’t it? Would have been good if either one had been true. What I found was a society wrapped in plantation mentality and not moving out of that mold anytime soon.

The first indication I got was whispered warnings from some black people when they felt I was saying too much about race and they felt  that I needed to be careful. None of them disagreed with what I was saying and some of them thanked me , privately of course, for saying it, but they did not want me to be punished for speaking out. That should have been a sign, but I put it down to personal timidity on their parts. I quickly discovered that, at least in my relatively small circle, the black people of North Carolina primarily, but not exclusively, ,  fell into two distinct categories, those who smiled at white folks at work but actually despised them and said so when whites were not present, and those who admired, emulated and wanted to be white folks.

Since neither of these positions are congruent with my philosophy, which is that there are good people in all races and bad people in all races and most people of any race fall into the former, not the latter category, I was pretty stunned by both groups. There is a lot of fear about race here. People are afraid to talk about it, and pointing out racism is viewed as a bigger sin than being a racist. Where, I asked myself, have these black people been? A quarter of the state and they still have not pushed this state towards some kind of revelatory discussion and reconciliation with race and racism—historic, institutional and personal ?

I have to say that no one has tried to treat me as less than in NC. Not much of an effort has been made thus far to shut me up. But I think that has to be tempered with the fact that they also have not made any effort to take my observations, research and commentary and do anything with it either. When I presented a paper at the American Association of University Professors two years ago which was basically an indictment of Research 1 institutions, including my own, and their ridiculous claim to want racially diverse faculties when they refuse to hire black professors, I returned to a surly campus. When I spoke to people who were not happy with my slight notoriety ( a journal picked up the paper and quoted me, somewhat inaccurately) I asked if they would like to read the paper if they had not already. I had shared it with lots of folks on campus first and asked for input. When they read it I asked them if they disagreed with my data, my analysis of the data or my conclusions. The answer was unanimously ” No!” Then, I said, you are mad because I told? That was usually met with silence which I took as admission.

You are not supposed to tell family secrets, especially when they involve racism. That and the rule that people can be revered as icons even though they spent the majority of their lives as overt racists are two things I have not been able to accept. Admiring people who have oppressed anyone is not something I am willing to do, even if they are old and rich and now pretend to be the very height of social justice advocates.

I speak up when I see someone doing something wrong, no matter who they are doing it to.

So, I am guilty it seems of not knowing my place. I thought if you shared your ideas, backed them up with data and made recommendations based on data and your perceptions that was doing what one should do. I did not know what one should do is keep one’s mouth shut, keep one’s eyes down so they do not see bigotry and abuse, agree with everyone whose title is higher than yours,  take your paycheck and make your owners……oops, superiors, happy.

When I retire I will be returning to Ohio. Not only because it is home and the grand kids are all there, but because Ohio seems to me to have a better grasp of race. True, there is racism in Ohio, always has been, but when it is called out and as clear as a bell it is usually condemned. Even more important the person doing the calling out is not viewed as violating some historic standard of behavior that entails judging something not on whether or not it is true, but whether or not it is something attention should be brought to and who it might embarrass.The attitude about race in NC is tightly wound with feelings about hierarchy. Some animals are viewed as more equal than others and it is still largely, but not exclusively, tied to race. The fact that the animals viewed as less equal seem content to occupy that niche as long as it comes with sufficient salary is what continues to astonish me.

And, in Ohio, maybe because we are fewer than 10% of the state’s population, the black people seem to remember that we are standing on the shoulders of people who were beaten, lynched and shot so that we could do better economically, educationally and socially. The idea that I escaped and am doing well and should now  turn my back on those still captured on the plantation is one I had never seen before.

So, I remain a stranger in a strange land. I have made dear friends and valued colleagues here of all races, and have some strong allies, worthy warriors in the battle for social justice, but I am, in far too many instances still a voice crying in the wilderness and my throat is getting sore.


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One response to “The annoying persistence of racism: We have met the enemy and it is us!

  1. Leonard Marks

    July 6, 2012 at 4:23 am

    great post


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