My old Afro-American Studies Chair Esther Terry used to say, echoing her rural North Carolina upbringing, "Robert, we have to try to make chicken salad out of chicken shit." Mindful of the wisdom of that injunction, I have been trying to find something positive to take away from this week's recrudescence of raw, unfiltered racism. Sitting as I am at the moment under storm clouds [but no tornados, Praise the Lord], I am searching the skies for silver linings. Here are the glimmerings I have glimpsed.
Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling are authentically American. They articulate eloquently the inner voices of scores of millions of White Americans, voices that have been with us for hundreds of years. This is, after all, a nation in which promoters sold tickets to lynchings at which enthusiastic spectators cut off body parts of the victims as souvenirs. In recent decades, it had become less socially acceptable [but by no means unknown] for those Americans to make themselves heard in public spaces.
Then, two things changed. First, the election of a Black President drove many millions of Americans wild with despair and rage. They came slouching out of their caves to say again in public what they had always believed, but lately had been forced by the soft tyranny of public opinion to reserve for private conversations. Second, modern technology made virtually every private conversation potentially public. The occasional open microphone, bane of the aspiring politician, became the ubiquitous cell phone, seemingly capturing not merely the private speech but even the private thoughts of the unwary. So we have Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling.
Well, I think it is a good thing. Nothing has ever been gained by the Pollyanna blathering of the chattering classes about a post-racial America. This is now, as it always has been, a deeply racialized society in which White contempt for Black men and women has never been absent. Far better to confront that fact, so that we can continue to fight against it. Racism is learned, it is not inherited. The more we expose it, and having exposed it, condemn it and those who embrace it, the less likely is it to be passed on to the next generation. Bundy and Sterling will never change, but they will die, Praise the Lord, and perhaps their heirs will be more decent human beings.
And now, as I write, I see a just a touch of blue on the Western horizon.