In this season when a black man is running for reelection to an office I would have sworn he would never be elected to in the first place and the inevitable talk of race and racism has erupted in full force, encouraged by things like bumper stickers that exhort white citizens not to “re-nig in 20012” or to put the “White back in the White House” , I just watched a special on television about Ole Miss and its football team in 1962, the same year James Meredith was admitted to the university amid riots and protests and with armed federal marshals defending him.
Many young folks of all races think the images of riots, police brutality, dogs been turned loose on children, people being beaten, hit with water hoses, etc. are images of a bygone era, one that was awful, but is over. Having lived in the South now for about 10 years I can tell you there are still remnants of that era although the weapons that are used to deny opportunities are much more subtle and much more insidious and much tougher to fight. For example, the mascot of Ole Miss is the Rebel, named after men from the college who volunteered to go fight for the Confederacy, many of whom were killed or wounded in battle. The mascot honors them. I find it hard to believe that I am the only person who would find it ironic that black students and players would not have a problem honoring someone who was fighting to keep their ancestors as chattel property. But, I will write another blog about the perceptions of some Southern blacks that I find puzzling.
I went to a Southern Research 1 institution in the spring of 2003 with great expectations of what could be accomplished there in the area of race. They claimed to want more black faculty, a better climate for racial and ethnic minorities and lots of other things. That did not prove to be true. What they wanted was a cover for the maintenance of the status quo. Ergo, I found out quickly I was not going to ever fit in, not really. Oh, I had my fans, quite a few I can immodestly say, but I was not willing to be nice about what I saw as social injustice. And they were not willing to change.
The past ( and that is a paraphrase of Faulkner–one must give the citation or be accused of plagiarism) is not the past. The past influences the way black people experience life every day. We no longer sit in the back of the bus, but we have to endure things like white people trying to tell us what is racist and what is not, attempts to convince us that racism is dead–even though we know it most certainly is not, and efforts to encourage “color blindness”, in other words let’s pretend everyone is white.
A poster on Facebook recently reminded me of the motto of the US E Pluribus Unum–from many, one. I am not sure if he is uninformed or naive or just stupid. America has never been a melting pot, and the “one” has almost always been white, male, rich and straight. Let me say right now that I have absolutely nothing against white, male, rich, straight folks. I have quite a few friends who fit into that category, some of them quite beloved. But, to pretend that America has ever been a place of equality for all is a fool’s tale told by a liar.
Ole Miss today still has Confederate flags around, still has Confederate statues of “heroes”, as does my campus for that matter and no doubt still has some lingering racial problems. The author of the piece I watched, basically an apologist for his beloved state, admitted that last year the Chancellor had to intercede because some of the students were chanting ” The South Shall Rise Again!” before a football game. I am sure you know that Ole Miss football, like all division 1 football has quite a contingent of black players. Who do you suppose the crowd of students was directing their comments to?
I recently went on a job interview for a VC ( Vice Chancellor) postion at another Southern University–why? Because I am crazy I think, or an eternal optimist. I will not get the job, I know that because I refuse to pretend to be someone I am not. The same scenario will play out that has happened to me several ( more than 3) times before. The committee will select me, the people who came to my open forum will adore me ( one woman , a black professor approached me after my public talk, grasped my hand, looked me in the eye and earnestly said “God sent you here.” ) and the Chancellor will over rule them all.
I am not obsequious enough or grateful enough or humble enough for the Chancellors and Presidents of the South. I do not know my place. I know my stuff, I could work quite a bit of change, given the authority, but there lies the rub. They do not want change. The past is not dead, it is alive and well on campuses all over our favored land, and not all of them are in the South I must hasten to add. Black faculty numbers continue to be miserable at the vast majority of campuses, and even the campuses that have a large population of black undergrads rarely translate that to their graduate and post doctoral ranks. The past is not dead.
Racism will never be gone from America and certainly will not be gone from education until the majority, read white, decide not to tolerate it period. Like the other sins of sexism and homophobia and classism, racism exists because the majority culture tolerates it, often acting like racism is just a social gaffe like farting or burping loudly, something you personally might find distasteful, but that is best handled by turning your head and forgetting pretending you didn’t see or hear it.
The football players from Ole Miss were nostalgic about their time in 1962, and, of course, expressed their horror at the actions of the white students at the time, even though one of the players admitted to throwing a Molotov cocktail at one of the soldiers guarding the building Meredith was in. The entire tone of the program “Ghosts of Ole Miss” on ESPN was a paean to how the football team had pulled together to go undefeated that year. The narrator said, ” Having seen the worst of Ole Miss ( the riots) it was time to show them the best.” I snorted with laughter, if he thought that all white team was the best athletic talent in Mississippi then or now he is sadly mistaken.
And there lies the problem, looking back at your past you want it to be pretty, pleasant, made up of good memories, so we engage in euphoric recall. Not just whites, blacks do it too. Recently on Facebook some of my era friends were posting about how great their junior high and high school years were in Xenia. I had to rain on their parade. We were integrated in junior high and only two of us–none of the ones talking about their lovely time, were allowed to take honors classes. Not only that we were not represented in any way in the student government and most of the clubs I belonged to might have had one or two at the most other blacks. I was on the very large scholarship team with only 3 other black students and we struggled to get a black cheerleader chosen. In addition the basketball coach at the beginning of our school years, Kaylor, refused to start more than three black players no matter how goo they were.
I enjoyed high school and people, teachers and students, treated me well, but most of my black classmates from East Jr. Hi, disappeared academically and socially at the white school. Who knows how their futures might have been different if they had not had the opportunities denied them to achieve more academically? It was not their intellect that was at fault, it was the view, sadly still present in much of education, that black people are not as smart as white people.
Someone , not a friend, but a friend of a friend, shared a right wing article with me with the position that if Barack Obama does not win re-election it will not be because he is black. I do wonder how many times we have to hear a lie to make it the truth? Being anti-Obama does not make you a racist, but that does not mean that a significant number of those who are against Obama far more than they are for Romney are not racists.
America has never dealt with race effectively or honestly. In Canada they have Anti-Racist Education. We have Diversity Training which can range from soul-food carry-ins to Community Seders. Diversity means nothing, we are a diverse people we don’t need lessons in diversity, we need lessons in how to treat each other and even more importantly in learning about each other’s realities, culture and history. . What we need to call it is what it should be about Anti-Racist, Anti-Homophobia, Anti-Misogynistic, Anti-reinventing history to make you and your ancestors look good Education.
The past is not dead, it is not even past. That quote is never truer than when applied to race in this country.