The Year in Racial Amnesia

The most interesting thing to me about the film 12 Years a Slave is that both its director, Steve McQueen, and its lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor, are British sons of immigrant parents. I wonder how both men, being black but not having roots in America, think of and relate to the story of Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South years after Britain had passed its Slavery Abolition Act.

The second most interesting thing to me about 12 Years a Slave is how few of my white friends have seen it.

One friend said he didn't want to see it while his partner was out of town—he knew it would be depressing and he wanted some support. Another told me it seemed "too brutal." Another said he plans on seeing 12 Years a Slave but hadn't yet because he's "preparing himself." Still another said she's not sure she'll ever see it because "it just seems so sad." In Entertainment Weekly, writer Anthony Breznican reported having talked to numerous Oscar voters who said they were "intimidated" by the prospect of watching the film. If the movie seems unwatchable to these people, it also seems unlikely that lots of potential audience members to their cultural and ideological right will make haste to theaters.

It's not that it really matters how many people go see 12 Years a Slave, which is performing relatively well overall despite America's squeamishness. Movie tickets are expensive, and there are other more direct and accurate ways to take in the life and times of Solomon Northup (you can read his book here for free). But that so many people in my life have found so many different reasons to avoid 12 Years a Slave stands out to me as significant, if unsurprising, in a nation that has fought tirelessly to never stand face-to-face with its past.

The Year in Racial Amnesia

Earlier this year, in the course of a lawsuit, it emerged that eminent Southern hostess Paula Deen had once found inspiration for her brother's plantation wedding at a restaurant whose servers were all black men in dinner jackets:

The whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive.

[...]

That restaurant represented a certain era in America…after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War…It was not only black men, it was black women…I would say they were slaves...But I did not mean anything derogatory by saying that I loved their look and their professionalism

At the time, much of the outrage against Deen centered on the question of whether or not she had, in the course of her life, used the word "nigger." More telling to me of her thoughts on race was her apparent sentimentality for the days when white people owned black people, and that to her there was nothing "derogatory" associated with that impulse.

This isn't to say I was ever taken aback by Deen's affection for the old. During the four years I spent in college in Virginia, it was hard not to notice how nostalgic for the "good ol' days" many people there were. Residents of all ages had celebrations and weddings at former plantations, their party tents obscuring the slave quarters from view. Kappa Alpha, the fraternity next door to mine, called Robert E. Lee its "spiritual founder." On their annual Old South days (which have since been banned), KA brothers at chapters around America would dress like Confederate generals and walk around their campuses with dates in Gone With the Wind-style gowns.

Other students at my college un-ironically called people from the northern states "yankees." When a close friend of mine from New England attended another student's debutante ball in the Deep South, he returned and recalled to me how a young Southern gentleman, dressed in tails and drinking bourbon, had ventured to explain that yankees simply didn't understand the South's need for slavery, which he claimed wasn't as bad as some people think.

I came to find that questions about the offensiveness of anything Southern were often quickly brushed away. Dismissiveness of a perceived Northern political correctness was common. I was just an outsider who couldn't comprehend the beauty and richness of Southern grace and tradition—a dumb yankee sticking his nose where it didn't belong.

On South Carolina's statehouse grounds, just northeast of the African American Monument, there stands a statue of former state governor and U.S. senator Benjamin Tillman, who defended lynching blacks and once stated that black people "must remain subordinate or be exterminated." The plaque beneath the Tillman monument reads, "He was the friend and leader of the common people."

The Year in Racial Amnesia

In a recent jeremiad against 12 Years a Slave, former National Review columnist John Derbyshire—most famous for a 2012 article about how to teach your children that blacks are threatening—condemned the film as "Abolitionist Porn." Derbyshire criticized McQueen's work for failing to show "how remarkably often ex-slaves spoke well of their masters," citing a book in which a slave recounts that her owner only beat his laborers "once in a while." Derbyshire, naturally, had not watched the movie before issuing his pronouncements (if he had, he would know that 12 Years a Slave does indeed depict slaves who are loyal to their masters, as Alyssa Rosenberg has detailed).

Another well-known tactic for minimizing the horror of slavery is to point out that the vast majority of white Americans never owned slaves, and thus dwelling on the human chattel industry is much ado about an insignificant blip in time. But while it is true that most whites in antebellum America didn't have slaves, all whites benefitted from the machinations of white supremacy. You may not have been rich enough to own a nigger, but you were still better than a nigger, and that made all the difference.

The Year in Racial Amnesia

Of course, to point any of this out is to provoke guffaws from certain corners of America. After Oprah Winfrey dared to suggest in an interview last month that racism is still at work in the U.S., and that some of the criticism of President Obama is due to his skin color, she was taken to task by radio host Mark Levin, who said, "Oprah Winfrey has no idea what it's like to live in a country that really is brutally racist."

Oprah Winfrey was born in 1954 in Mississippi. In 1955, in that same state, a black World War II veteran named Lamar Smith was shot to death in broad daylight in front of a courthouse where he was attempting to help African Americans vote. The local sheriff allegedly told the presiding district attorney that he saw a white man fleeing from the scene "with blood all over him," and yet the officer made no immediate arrests. Later, an all-white grand jury would fail to return any indictments against the three white men arrested for the murder.

A week after Levin's missive, USA Today, the most widely circulated print newspaper in America, weighed in on Winfrey's interview with an op-ed called, plainly, "No, Oprah, America Isn't Racist." "Oprah might want us to believe Obama faces extraordinary opposition that can largely be explained by his race," wrote Christian rock producer Mark Joseph, "but she conveniently forgets that in the past 100 years, six presidents were shot at, one killed, another impeached and two driven from office." In Joseph's mind, this idea of racial animosity being directed toward Obama is a figment of Oprah's imagination, because people dislike white presidents, too.

This is a specific kind of blinder worn by racists: If an abuse happens to white people also, it's not racism, it's just life. White people go to jail, too, so the justice system isn't skewed against minorities. White people were indentured servants in early America, and black Africans participated in the slave trade, ergo slavery wasn't as racist as some make it out to be. Unlike with white presidents, nobody's even fired a gun at President Obama, and so Oprah must be speaking disingenuously when she says there is a special hatred for Obama in the nation's air.

Never mind that after Obama took office death threats against the president leapt 400 percent. Never mind the woman who went to her Facebook page after last year's election to call Obama a "nigger" and wish for his assassination. These are the fever dreams and hallucinations of those who would victimize themselves in a nation that's nearly free of racism. In fact, white people working to convince us all that racism is a thing of the past has become somewhat of a cottage industry within the broader media landscape. At the beginning of this month, the Republican National Committee praised Rosa Parks for her hand in "ending racism." A week later, in an op-ed for the Boston Herald, Michael Graham wrote, "Is racism dead? No, but it's on life support..." A week after that the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby chimed in with almost the exact same sentiment: "Hatred and bigotry really do exist, of course. ... But by and large, America's racist past is dead and gone."

In a nation that regularly heralds its founding fathers and the work they did that resonates through to today, to say that the hardships oppressing blacks of that era may have a similarly long lifespan is objectionable. Thomas Jefferson left a legacy, you see, but the influence of the system that made Jefferson the owner of more than 100 human beings is well near gone. And we have white newspaper columnists to thank for keeping us apprised of this development.

The Year in Racial Amnesia

While blacks who say that America is not yet free from the burdens of slavery and its attendant prejudices are accused of making things up, whites who do the same are accused of possessing "white guilt." In America white guilt is an insult. It's an embarrassing epithet thrown at white people who are perceived to concede that they benefit from an awful and unjust history. Acknowledging this reality is seen by some as pathetic, an admission of wrongdoing where there is none.

And yet some people's aversion to collective racial blame only goes so far, generally ending whenever the conversation turns to young black men. Most recently the black community has been asked to explain itself for the so-called "knockout game," a violent farce that "mostly black kids are playing," according to Geraldo Rivera. To be sure, a handful of young black people has been arrested of late for the heinous crime of groundlessly punching strangers, and an even smaller fraction of those young people has said it was playing a game called "knockout." But proof that the knockout game is some kind of major scourge amongst black youth is nonexistent, as some law enforcement officials have explained (emphasis mine):

Much news coverage of reported knockout attacks includes 2012 footage from a surveillance camera in Pittsburgh of James Addlespurger, a high school teacher who was 50, being swiftly struck to the ground by a young man walking down an alleyway with some friends. Yet the Pittsburgh police said the attacker insisted the assault was not part of any organized "game."

"This was just a random act of violence," Police Commander Eric Holmes said in a televised interview last year. "He stated that he was just having a bad day that day."

Despite the fact that Addlespurger's beating has been confirmed as having nothing to do with any sort of game, the story and video of his attack have been used time and again in trumped-up knockout game reports from major outlets like ABC News and the Today show (it's gotten so bad that Addlespurger himself says he feels "exploited"). Elsewhere, on Fox News, Bernie Goldberg has said that Jesse Jackson and Tavis Smiley not addressing the knockout game "speaks to their failure as black leaders."

As fear about the knockout game foments, so too will incidents of copycats, hoaxers, and an insistence by authorities that a random attack is evidence of a larger problem. E.g., this report from Sacramento news station KCRA (again, emphasis mine):

"It's maybe a trend. This has been going on back east for a few years. What is concerning is that it seems to be creeping closer and closer to this area," said Sgt. Lisa Bowman, spokesperson for the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

[...]

Bowman said there have been no confirmed reports in Sacramento, but it's possible that past cases could've been categorized more generally as assaults...

So, no confirmed reports of the knockout game in Sacramento, but nevertheless it's "maybe a trend." One thing Sacramento authorities will speak to with confidence is that, whether or not the knockout-game trend exists, the people behind it are black: "Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness has studied the cases. 'There seems to be tremendous racial and ethnic disparity insofar as the overwhelming majority of those committing these acts are African-American.'"

From 1980 to 2008, 84 percent of white homicide victims were killed by other whites [PDF], and 53 percent of gang-related killings involved white offenders. Last month a white 27-year-old was arrested for walking up to an elderly black man he didn't know and punching him out. But "white leaders" are never asked to account for white criminality, because in America race isn't a contributing factor when white people behave badly. A person's skin color as it relates to crime only becomes pertinent when that person's skin is dark, the implication being that a white criminal is an aberration, while a black criminal is indicative of a larger threat. A truth, that blacks and liberals of all colors will not face: A white guy runs up behind someone and sucker punches him, as has happened countless times in history? He's an asshole. A black guy sucker punches someone? He attacked from behind; it was to be expected; and there are lots more where that came from, because the blacks are playing a dangerous game and it's coming to a town near you.

This is how America is choosing to end 2013, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation: by ginning up more fear of black people in a country that's already murderously afraid of black people. We have the gall to cap things off with a viral reminder to be wary of the knockout game, to be wary of black people, who can be spoken of—and looked down upon—as a terrifying monolith stricken with a unifying pathology.

In the book 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup describes another slave, Patsey, whose view of perfect heaven has been so perverted as to be nothing more than a place she can relax her body and mind for a moment. "Her heaven," Northup says, "is simply rest," a perspective clarified in this piece of verse:

I ask no paradise on high,
With cares on earth oppressed,
The only heaven for which I sigh,
Is rest, eternal rest.

The Year in Racial Amnesia

In February Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker was frisked in a New York City deli by an employee who accused him of shoplifting. Whitaker, it turned out, had just been attempting to buy some yogurt.

In May a Miami-Dade police officer placed a 14-year-old black boy in a chokehold after he felt threatened by the child's "dehumanizing stare."

In September a 24-year-old black man named Jonathan Farrell crashed his car outside of Charlotte. He emerged from the wreckage, likely dazed, and sought help from nearby homeowners, who called police. Farrell ran toward the arriving officers and was shot dead.

In November a 19-year-old named Renisha McBride knocked on the door of a Dearborn Heights home after an auto accident. She was shot in the face by the homeowner, who was wielding a shotgun. The Wayne County Prosecutor says McBride, who died at the scene, was shot through a locked screen door.

The Year in Racial Amnesia

All those who would look back to the "charms" of Olde America seem unaware that those days are not so far gone. The United States has improved such that we no longer have mobs that gather to watch a lynched body the way they might watch a fish struggle on a line. But we're lying to ourselves if we think Florida police arresting a black man dozens of times simply for going to work isn't an act underpinned by the old notion that some people's rights are worth less than the rights of others. We're kidding ourselves if we think that New York police arresting three black kids simply for waiting in an inadequate place for a school bus isn't underpinned by the old notion that black people should be treated with suspicion. We're refusing to open our eyes and acknowledge what's right in front of us if we think that that same fear isn't at the heart of the killings of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Farrell, Renisha McBride, and others.

In America we like to pretend that our statues and federal holidays are proof that we are humbled by and respectful to our shared national history. But how respectful are we, and to whom are we showing respect, when a monument to a "great" American fails to mention that that man once worked ceaselessly to subjugate an entire group of other Americans? How respectful are we when we publish in our newspapers headlines calling black women liars for proffering the ridiculous opinion that the racism they've known since childhood is a real thing? Whose history is being respected when a white American says she pines for the days when entire restaurant waitstaffs were composed of old black men? Why does it feel like some histories are more valued than others in America, where often the response to minorities who mention their difficult pasts is, "Get over it"?

In the New York Times' recent deep dive into the life of Dasani, a black homeless child living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, journalist Andrea Elliott notes how the notorious practice of redlining worked to drive inequality in post-war Brooklyn:

Dasani's Fort Greene reaches deep into the last century. Her grandmother Joanie grew up in the Raymond V. Ingersoll Houses, next to the Walt Whitman Houses. Both projects opened in 1944, an era of New Deal reforms that gave rise to white flight and urban decay. Fort Greene, like other black areas, was redlined, allowing banks to disinvest and property values to plummet.

Decades after blacks in New York were systematically denied home loans, property insurance, and so many other opportunities at a prosperous life, Dasani now lives with her family in a shelter infested with cockroaches and other vermin.

The specters of the past are all around us in America. Some of us just refuse to look at them.

[Art by Jim Cooke]