While writing a column last week, a slight rumbling caught my attention. In truth, I had caught the slightest tremor of it earlier in the day, but that tremor was the precursor to the shock wave of the evening. That early warning, a story in The Post and Courier about the firing of Academic Magnet Football Coach Bud Walpole after the school district had received a complaint about a racist celebration ritual following a game, wasn't enough to get me clear of the area. Like those people too interested in documenting the destruction and chaos to run away before they are overwhelmed, I ventured closer to the edges of the fire. To my horror, my editor Chris Haire, jumped right in.
I quickly jumped back.
I've angered lots of people in my day, but I'm not about to take on high school students in groups, especially not ones exhibiting a real, live version of what Noam Chomsky called "irrational attitudes of submission to authority" in their unquestioning and vociferous defense of Coach Walpole. Their defense of their schoolmates and themselves, while slightly more understandable, deserve some closer attention, though.
Over and over, in the comments on Twitter and Facebook and on the City Paper site itself, one refrain rings out. We aren't racists, so how could this be racist? The question comes in many different versions, of course, but it's the same basic line over and over again. And, to be very honest, it's really, really hard to blame these young people — or even people closer to my own age — for their inability to see race and racism in the proper context. You see, as Chris said to me on Twitter last week, "All of your racist history has been jazz-handed out of existence." And that's the problem.
One AMHS senior posted this telling piece of information on Chris' Haire of the Dog blog: "I have never heard of 'blackface, Buckwheat, and Birth of a Nation,' does that mean I am a 'grade-A dumbass' and 'racist asshole?'" No, of course it doesn't. But it does mean your school and your society have failed you in ways you can't really perceive just yet. Hopefully, when you do go off to college next year, you can be exposed to an education that helps you understand just what those things all mean. And that isn't a dig at your age, or where you come from. I certainly won't lie and say I always felt about race in this country the way I feel now.
After all, like a lot of white people who have grown up in America in the last 50 years, I was taught "we're all equal, and racism is wrong" and that was pretty much the sum of it. There was no depth to it whatsoever. White America's response to the Civil Rights movement was to say, essentially, "OK, you're right. African Americans aren't second-class citizens. Here are your voting rights and integration and some legal protections in housing and employment, so we're good, right?" And then we watched as evidence of our nation's racist past was slowly erased from existence. Cartoons featuring characters in blackface were removed from the archives, and Sambo dolls disappeared from stores, along with other racist caricatures. But we never talked about it, and so, in a perverse way, it has done more harm to our culture today than it otherwise might have.
We, as a country, haven't dealt with our own racist history. Sure, to some degree we've learned about it. The slave ships. The buying and selling of human beings like cattle. The destruction of culture, of language, of religion, of family, and the replacement of the same by ones foreign and hostile to the recipients. We've talked about the Civil War, and maybe even a little bit about Reconstruction. And then, for almost 80 years of American history, there's crickets. Tiny murmurs about lynchings, mentions of "great, sweeping legislation" that "changed the course of history for African Americans."
And sadly, that's led straight to "We're all equal now. It's all good. We're a Great Society and we're all on the same page." Except we aren't. And we cannot be until we have a real talk about what it means to live in 21st Century America as heirs to what our forefathers did before us. And yes, we are living with the sins of those forefathers.
That's a hard pill for many white people to swallow today, though, and it's almost easy to see why. It's hard to believe that we, as people today, bear any responsibility for what was done decades and centuries before we were born. But to the people who say, "I am not responsible for what went on in the past," I would ask this question: If your great-grandfather were owed a debt by someone, and the payment of that debt would have not only made a huge difference in his life, but also yours, would you not want to collect on that debt if you had a chance? Even 20 or 200 years later? Would you not feel owed something? I bet you would.
But what does this all have to do with high school football or a post-game celebration involving an innocuous fruit? Again, that's part of the problem. Where some people see an "over-sensitive society" or "political correctness over common sense" as the problem, others see something different. And with good reason. For some people in America, racism isn't a historical concept. It's a fact of life.