Can We Learn?
How Ralph Northam
White People’s “Teachable Moment”
The Ralph Northam drama has moved off the front burner but is still percolating in the daily news. Northam, of course, can’t seem to stop tripping over his own dick, despite his good intentions. Referring to slaves as “indentured servants” during his Gayle King interview (February 11) once again illustrated that Mr. Northam is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Yet the most recent survey of Virginians shows the state is split (47% yes, 47% no) on the idea of his resigning but 58% of African-Americans support Northam. Race is a sticky topic in U.S. politics, of course, but the Northam situation raises a number of important issues to reflect on. In a New York Times story about Northam on Monday a Black resident of Virginia’s Eastern Shore (where Northam grew up), Gerald Boyd said the Northam case was “a cautionary tale that the nation’s racist conditioning can snare even well-meaning people.” In Mr. Boyd’s words: “That conditioning slips out in the form of thoughts and feelings and words, jokes and deeds. . . Until white people have a chance to talk about how they have been conditioned, it’ll sneak up on them.” And Ralph Northam’s is a case of not only classic racist conditioning (that all White people are susceptible to) but also White male privilege.
When Gayle King asked Northam about his White privilege, he said that he only came to understand it lately, noting, “I didn’t realize really the powerful implications of that (white privilege). And again talking to a lot of friends that has come crystal clear to me this week. I have also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive and yes I knew it in the past.” Northam was also quoted in Monday’s NY Times as saying, “Growing up, the way we were raised, my brother and I, we didn’t see color.” Rather than pile on Northam for his (willful?) ignorance (and “conditioned” racism) we need to consider the broader picture --- that “conditioning” Gerald Boyd noted. The pervasiveness of conditioned racism is a particular vestige of Jim Crow’s legacy --- not just in the South but in our National Character. As far back as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “The prejudice of race appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.” (Louis Menand, New Yorker, February 4, 2019). Once Plessy v. Ferguson was established by the Supreme Court in 1896, segregation of the races became more and more embedded in all of American society.
The establishment of Jim Crow was not simply a matter of laws suppressing African-American voting and segregating schools and transportation, or of a pattern of social practices that became ingrained. Jim Crow was a regime that was created over and over again. In 1930, the city of Birmingham made it illegal for a black person and a white person to play dominoes or checkers together. In 1932, Atlanta prohibited amateur baseball clubs of different races from playing within two blocks of each other. In 1935, Oklahoma required the separation of races when fishing or boating. In 1937, Arkansas segregated its horse-racing tracks. Jim Crow required a constant reminder of who was in charge. Its mania for racial separatism was insatiable. (Menand, New Yorker, Feb. 4, 2019)
While those examples are Southern, let’s remember it wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in Major League baseball (and the Boston Red Sox didn’t integrate their team until July 1959). If you are a fan of Denzell Washington’s 2000 movie “Remember the Titans” you may not have paid careful attention and noted that the Virginia high school team “Coach” Washington was integrating was playing in 1971. And while we in the North castigate Southerners for their slow integration the most segregated school system in the United States today is New York City’s. This is all the direct result of the White Privilege Ralph Northam is just learning about. One element of White Privilege that enables it to be so pervasive in our society is the “accepted” nomenclature of “majority/minority” classification --- a classification dictated predominantly by White males (with privilege!).
In the January 27, 2019 New York Times Magazine Wesley Morris dedicated the “First Words” column to an examination of the use of the terms “majority” and “minority.” Most significantly, he points out that: “There are straight, white able-bodied people, and then there’s everyone else.” From there, he says:
The term only made sense from the viewpoint of Whites, who commonly related to Black people as the numerical minority in their Majority-White spaces, and elite Blacks, who were more likely to exist as the numerical minority in majority-White spaces.
We can’t separate this classification/categorization system, which is pervasive, from the “conditioning” that produced Ralph Northam (and the rest of us?). Morris notes that White people never announce themselves as “majority” until it serves a political agenda, like the Moral Majority or the Silent Majority. Those dog whistles, which Republican politicians rely on, implicitly call out the White privileged “troops” they need in elections (where voter suppression is also a key tool in the Republican playbook). What Morris also notes, most significantly, is that the White majority “persists because the math feels loosely sound: Since the nation’s founding ‘White/Caucasian/European’ has been its most sizable racial category . . . the preservation of that majority has entailed everything from genocide to the invention of stuff like anti-miscegenation laws.” So, we (White people) need to connect the dots of this 400-year-old constellation that maintains a seriously imbalanced society consistently privileging White people.
Tomorrow: White Privilege and Black Voting
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