Recently I wrote a highly critical piece about Senator Rand Paul and his former close aide, Jack Hunter, who repeatedly wrote racist rants, both in his own name and as “The Southern Avenger.”
Since then, the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who garnered attention during his high-profile showdown with the Bureau of Land Management, was quoted in the New York Times wondering about the status of “Negros.”
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton,” according to Bundy. “And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
And this weekend the sports world was rocked by the release of tape-recorded conversations allegedly of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist statements to his girlfriend. (According to press reports, Sterling has a documented history of supposedly racist behavior, having been sued twice by the federal government for refusing to rent apartments to Blacks and Latinos.)
All of which got me to wondering how, based on these incidents, I would feel if I were a black person in America in 2014. And the answer is: Pretty sick to my stomach.
I’ve written many times about the harmful effects of people promiscuously and recklessly throwing out the charge of racism. I still hold to that view. But what may need to be amended is my assumption about racial attitudes.
For many people of my generation and younger, who grew up in the post-Civil Rights era, racism–while obviously not fully extinguished–is something that belongs in America’s past; an ugly stain that has more or less been wiped away by law and shifting attitudes. And there’s no question that racism has receded over the decades; the fact that a black man could be elected and reelected president is evidence of that. So is the swift and harsh condemnations of both Bundy and Sterling. Still, it may well be the case that bigotry is more widespread than many of us have assumed. That public displays of racism are rare but private hostility toward minorities, and especially African Americans, is much more common. They exist, but in the shadows.
I understand the counter-argument, well-stated by Hotair.com’s Jazz Shaw, and it goes like this: People like Bundy (67) and Sterling (80) are elderly men who live in isolated and insular worlds. Shaw points out that for the millennial generation, “Questions of racial differences seem to be a foreign concept to them.”
“Is actual racism completely dead in America?” Shaw asks. “No … I’m not saying that. But from the looks of things out on the street it’s dying a natural death. I wouldn’t read too much into the comments of septuagenarians who grew up steeped in a different culture.”
Fair enough. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to read too little into them, either. At a minimum the comments by Hunter (age 39), Bundy, and Sterling are at least a reminder that we’re not all that far removed from a time when feculent views on race were fairly common. And while the law should be colorblind, our society is not. For most of American history, slavery and segregation were legal, at least in large parts of the nation. The march from Selma to Montgomery occurred less than 50 year ago.
I wouldn’t want to discount for a moment the progress America has made on race, or what the progress says about America. But we also need to keep this in mind as well: Slavery was America’s original sin, and freeing the slaves and later allowing blacks to eat at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s–while enlightened and humane acts–hardly expunged the malignancy of racism from the human heart. And while I haven’t shifted my views on policy or my belief that those on the left who invoke racism to explain virtually every difference on policy are having a pernicious effect, I do wonder whether my own experiences have caused me to overlook some persistently disturbing realities. What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing, C.S. Lewis wrote; and none of us stands in a place where we see the complete landscape, all the hills and all the valleys, the beauty and the scars.
Speaking for myself at least, it’s worth re-thinking just a bit what it must feel like to be black in America today.