The Wells’ legacy and Pompous Post Racialism

Ida B Wells 2

Google is honoring Ida B. Wells-Barnett today for her journalism and activism on behalf of African Americans who were being lynched at alarming rates in this country.  She was born a slave in 1862 and lived until 1931.  How ironic that today we’re addressing issues involving the excessive use of force against African Americans by law enforcement authorities.

Among some white conservative elements there appears to be a protracted, if not profound, attempt to assert that there would be no racial problems eighty four years after Mrs. Wells-Barnett’s death if people would just stop talking about IT.  Witness Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly’s recent rant:

“O’Reilly ripped into liberals who he says are “demonizing” America by saying America is “a country dominated by white supremacy… to keep black Americans down.” And this goes “unchallenged by a cowardly media,” as he put it. He got really teed off as he insisted “there is no organized effort to harm black people by white people,” and then declared, “You want a war? You got a war! I’m not going to sit here any longer and take this garbage.” [Mdite]

The most obvious issue with O’Reilly’s rant is that racism doesn’t have to be organized to be pervasive.  The second problem is that we do have some demons which need to be faced down.

We do need to analyze and act upon information which persistently demonstrates that some police officers treat African Americans differently – out of fear? Out of biases? Out of lack of appropriate training?   One question that keeps rising out of the fog of information regarding the shooting of unarmed black suspects is “Did the officer perceive a greater threat because the suspect was African American?”  (Michael Brown) Or, “Did the officer lack sufficient self control to manage an arrest of an African American suspect?” (Walter Scott) Or to deal with a situation involving African Americans (McKinney, TX)?

Are African Americans treated differently, or abused, in police custody. Texas authorities have been called in to investigate the death of Sandra Bland, arrested in Waller County, who police reported had committed suicide in her jail cell. [ChicagoTrib] The family vociferously disputes this possibility.

Again, white supremacy needn’t be as blatant as that of the Council of Conservative Citizens, or the KKK, or any other associated hate group.  We can see it at work in the sentencing of black and white convicts, as described by a study conducted by researchers from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Pennsylvania University:

“The researchers divided judges into categories based on level of race bias. To make these results concrete, they compare two examples. There are two identically situated defendants, who differ only by race – one black and one white. If they are sentenced by a judge who is among the least affected by racial bias (meaning in one of the best case scenarios), the black defendant is still 30% more likely to end up in prison. If they are sentenced by judge who is among the most affected by racial bias (one of the worst case scenarios), the black defendant is almost twice as likely to end up in prison.” [TP]

ALL other elements being equal, a black defendant is still 30% more likely to be sentenced to prison than a white defendant. Why?  If we take the discussion out of the realm of the institutional and into the general population we find that racism is far from a minor irritant under American skin.  Perhaps it would be instructive to take a closer look at the nature of white complaints.

One of the more illogical is the fallacious argument of “reverse racism,” which is used to cover a range of territory from opposition to affirmative action plans to the justification of person racial prejudice.  In definitional terms, the assertion fails to differentiate between racism (a social construct) and prejudice/bias (a personal trait.)  Additionally, it all too often relies on broad generalizations based on limited personal information or experience.  Contentions that entire population segments are “lazy,” or “criminal,” or otherwise socially unfit require the speaker to ignore all but that data which substantiates his position.  Yes, the unemployment rate for African Americans in this country is 9.5% [BLS]  However, that obviously means that 90.5% of working age African Americans are, in fact, working – hardly proving that they are “lazy” or disinclined to accept employment.

A variation on the “reverse racism” contention is the “they are taking our jobs” assertion.  This can be quickly, and relatively easily debunked:

“Although many are concerned that immigrants compete against Americans for jobs, the most recent economic evidence suggests that, on average, immigrant workers increase the opportunities and incomes of Americans.  Based on a survey of the academic literature, economists do not tend to find that immigrants cause any sizeable decrease in wages and employment of U.S.-born citizens (Card 2005), and instead may raise wages and lower prices in the aggregate (Ottaviano and Peri 2008; Ottaviano and Peri 2010; Cortes 2008).”  [Brookings]

So, if we do have legitimate questions regarding the interactions between members of minority communities and law enforcement institutions, and at least two of the most common racially based complaints are illogical or downright false, why the current interest in “Our Heritage?”  There’s nothing all that new about this, as Salon explained back in 2013:

“The white Southern narrative — at least in the dominant Southern conservative version — is one of defeat after defeat. First the attempt of white Southerners to create a new nation in which they can be the majority was defeated by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Doomed to be a perpetual minority in a continental American nation-state, white Southerners managed for a century to create their own state-within-a-state, in which they could collectively lord it over the other major group in the region, African-Americans. But Southern apartheid was shattered by the second defeat, the Civil Rights revolution, which like the Civil War and Reconstruction was symbolized by the dispatching of federal troops to the South. The American patriotism of the white Southerner is therefore deeply problematic. Some opt for jingoistic hyper-Americanism (the lady protesteth too much, methinks) while a shrinking but significant minority prefer the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes.”

It’s that shrinking minority which greeted our first African American President in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

csa flags obama trips

Complete with those Stars and Bars.  And in this instance we may be seeing another element in play.  There are those who cannot efficiently handle the difference between criticism and an attack.  No one is actually attacking American culture.  What is happening is that it is no longer socially acceptable to use the N-word, at least in public. It is no longer socially acceptable to slap Mary Jane on the fanny down at the garage.  It is no longer socially acceptable to call the Gonzales family the W-B term.  It’s true, Native American women take offense at the S-word.  Nor, is it socially acceptable to use the F-word as shorthand for members of the LGBT communities.  In short, it is no longer socially acceptable to view members of ethnic and gender minorities from the Olympian heights of assumed white supremacy.

Those people who are uncomfortable with this state of affairs may be longing to “take our country back.”  But, what do they mean by that statement? 

At one end of the spectrum there are the white nationalists, the fringe groups of the malcontents and the downright disturbed who cheered the actions of the Charleston Church shooter. It is harder to categorize the other delineations on that spectrum of opinion.  There are, of course, those who would happily pepper their conversation with the racial epithets which are no longer useful or appropriate, and who would gladly practice discrimination if it’s in their power to do so.  There are those who would like to use their unacceptable vocabulary (and related ideas) but don’t do so in public, and bristle at the thought they would personally be capable of bias or prejudice.  And there are the insensitive or ignorant who simply don’t know that some words and items are offensive and slip up in situations they later regret. (Example: Tom Petty’s apology for using the CSA battle flag on a 1985 album)

A person may well be suffering from “white supremacy” syndrome if he or she is aware that the CSA (KKK) battle flag is offensive, but waves it anyway because it is emblematic of their discomfort and their longing to return to a time when they weren’t aware the LGBT community existed (outside closets), when African Americans “knew their place,” when everyone spoke English (never since the expansion of the US after the Louisiana Purchase, and questionable before then), and when they could talk about tolerance without actually having to practice it.

So, the contention that we’re “post racial” is as inaccurate as it is pompous. It is little more than a thin layer of Kawamata silk which fails to even barely disguise the efforts to cling to their sense of self-worth on the equally fragile social ladder constructed of outmoded ideas, and outdated vocabulary.

Meanwhile, let’s join the celebration of Ida Baker Wells-Barnett and her legacy of journalism and civic activism.  No flags are required.

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