The Billings Outpost

Not time yet to make nice about racist history

A Fox News contributor last week asked protesters at a North Carolina rally whether the Tea Party is racist. Sure it is, they said. Could they give examples? Not so much.

A UCLA graduate student analyzed signs at a Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. She found that only about 6 percent mentioned President Obama’s race, religion or American citizenship.

From such evidence right-wing pundits have concluded that when it comes to racism, liberals got nothing. Pundits would prefer to focus on the “real” racists, who in their fervid imaginations are mostly black and liberal.

Of course, evidence for persistent white racism does exist. The people who have carried signs depicting Obama as an African witch doctor probably are racists. People carrying signs of watermelons growing on the White House lawn probably are racists.

Mark Hamilton, who had to resign as spokesman for the Tea Party Express after he wrote a blatantly racist open letter to Abraham Lincoln on his blog, is no doubt a racist.

Closer to home, Jennifer Olsen, who was serving as chairman of the Yellowstone County Central Committee, denied that she posted a watermelon-related joke about Obama on her Facebook page, but screen shots of the page backed claims that she had done so. U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull and Yellowstone County Assessor and Superintendent of Schools Max Lenington were both caught using racist slurs in email.

More broadly, it’s hard to imagine that the attacks on Obama’s citizenship don’t have a core of racism at their heart. We will know for sure when we start seeing signs from the same people telling Sen. Ted Cruz to go back to Canada.

But so what? Allegations of racism are so toxic in 21st century America that few people are willing to admit, even to themselves, that they are guilty. If our troubled racial history ought to have taught us anything, it’s that it doesn’t matter what you say you think. It’s what you do that counts.

Because of their long history of doing the wrong thing, certain states were required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get preclearance from the federal government before changing election laws. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down preclearance laws as unconstitutional, and some states immediately moved to implement voter ID laws that appear custom made to suppress minority turnout.

Naturally, those states deny that they intend to keep minorities from voting. They said the same about the poll tax, now barred by constitutional amendment, and about literacy requirements for voting, now barred by statute.

Some states, including Texas, had laws into the 1940s that restricted voting in primaries to white citizens. Some states required that voters be of “good character,” as determined by appointed boards that found a shocking number of black citizens unable to meet the standard.

In striking down the preclearance laws, a majority of Supreme Court justices found that Congress had failed to take into account how much better things have gotten for minority voters since 1965. The four dissenters argued that things have gotten better precisely because of the law.

They pointed out that Southern states openly obstructed minority voting for a century after the Civil War, and that discrimination in the form of racial gerrymandering and other “second generation” restrictions still exists.

Between 1982 and 2006, they wrote, the U.S. Department of Justice blocked more than 700 voting changes proposed by states as discriminatory. As recently as 2004, Texas attempted to restrict early voting near a historically black university in an attempt to stifle turnout for two black students running for office.

So when is it time to declare that legally sanctioned racism has officially ended, that every drop of blood drawn with the lash has been paid? I propose a simple answer: When I die.

I mean this suggestion to be less frivolous than it sounds. I was born in Texas in 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and three years before Texas made its last attempt to hold whites-only primaries. My hometown’s schools were segregated until I was 7, and I suspected even at that tender age that something was profoundly wrong in the Land of the Free.

I was 13 when Congress passed the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, old enough to have some notion of what was going on but not old enough to bear much blame for the problems it attempted to solve.

I remember whites-only restrooms and colored sections in movie theaters. I saw civil rights marchers in the Deep South in the 1960s. In 1966, I saw the first black football player in Southwest Conference history.

None of that racism was aimed at good old boys like me, but racism damaged white people just as surely, if not remotely as severely, as it did black people.

Am I ready to forgive and forget? No, not quite. Some of the people who were to blame for our racist legacy are still around; some who are not have passed their racism on to their children.

Some of those children will pass racism along to their children, too. That’s pitiable, but unavoidable.

While we cannot change the past, we must make peace with it. With a little luck, by the time I have gone, most of the last generation of Americans to live through the final spasms of legal racism will be gone, too.

Let it rest then. But not before.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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