Walter Rhett

Racist! A Peaceful Conversation About A Highly Charged Word

In National Affairs on August 5, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Charles Blow, New York Times visual columnist made a “racist” comment against M.C. Escher! (lol!) Charles, who is black and the Graphics editor for National Geographic didn’t like his work, but to me, Escher always emphasized hamony and interconnectiveness in his drawings and described a world where things that appeared different fit and came together in a grand design.

I have other differences, too. I remember CBS’s Eric Sevareid. Glenn Beck is no conservative–he’s a lunatic, hearing the muddled voices from the fringe that were once dim echoes in the shadows and the white noise in the phone lines.

That said, the flying recriminations of race simply reflect not Obama but the times. Charles Blow wants to lay them at Obama’s feet, but I find them laughably buried in history.

There have been many names and labels bandied about American history in the name of race; among them, “drapetomania,” a disease that supposedly infected slaves and caused them runaway. More recently, “white power,” (a not-to-original, copied parody of “black power”) had been used as a slogan and rally cry by those defending the rights of the white race.

Carefully trace the arugments about race through history; it shows several paradigm shifts. First the debate involved biology and biological terms. (Blacks were genetically and mental inferiority by biology; biological descriptions abounded of low foreheads, thick brows, bungling muscles,; hence, Africans were hopelessly child-like and simple–or brutes and savages.)

Then, in the 1800s, political forms were introduced by abolitionists and slavery’s defenders. The rhetoric of race entered a golden age and took on the form of high art on both sides.

Charleston-born, Philadelphia’s President of the Underground Railroad Robert Purvis, (mother Jewish and Morrocan, once slave; father wealthy English; domestic partners, 1810) offers an example: “We love our native country, much as it has wronged us; and in the peaceable exercise of our inalienable rights, we will cling to it . . . Will you starve our patriotism?”

Compare the above to the views of a Purvis contemporary, Beaufort, SC politican and slavery supporter John William Grayson: “Slavery is the negro system of labour. He is lazy and improvident. Slavery is that system of labour which exchanges subsistence for work. Slavery makes all work, and it ensures homes, food and clothing for all. It permits no idleness, and it provides for sickness, infancy and old age.”

The old biology had shifted; becoming more political; framed in rhetoric and social philosophy. Fast forward to the civil rights movement: the word “agitator” was spit with scorn on both whites and blacks who worked to break segregation, portrayed by its proponents (among them at the time, the later noted Washington columnist, James Kilpatrick) as being an acceptable, fine state of affairs! The extreme ephithet of the era was “communist,” often applied to Dr. King.

Today–right now–the American debate on race has a moral, behaviorial, political context; summed up, ironically, by a term used by both sides! Racist! To start with, both sides concede the basic right of equal opportunity and freedom for all. Morality comes up in off-camera conversations and websites (drugs, crime, single parent and teen age births; and Maury Povich’s show doesn’t help!).

The key to the present debate is to recognize that “racism,” as an allegation or as tar and feathering, has, as did earlier terms, an embedded code. For both sides, it has a hidden but highly charged meaning, a flash point designed to rally the supporters of different views.

In today’s contrived gibberish, Black “racists” fully intent to take rights away from white people (Beck hears the Nikes coming). As blacks gain, whites lose.

White “racists” are psychologically impaired, unable to accept the new status quo. They are trapped in the pain of losing something they deeply cherished and thought unassailable: their legacy and birthright to reign. Examples include school children chanting “assassinate Obama,” and European officials who becried Obama’s win.

And anybody who talks about race, who brings it up, is pulled toward one view or the other. The NAACP speech clip showed this when a number of commentators insisted the long standing cultural practice of nods and words encouraging the speaker to bring forth the story was a sanction of “racism.”

Upon further review, maybe it’s not “racist” when a black man sees Escher in a way with which I disagree. I am sure Charles Blow’s view has nothing to do with is being black, and I just happen to think Escher’s work is pretty good for a white guy, which once might have made me an “Uncle Tom.” Sorry about opening with the race card. We can have different minds and views. That settled; I’m glad Obama didn’t have to get involved. Now if he will make some decent appointments and lead by administering rather than legislating, we can climb out of the hole.

If we get out, race will still be around. On that score, there’s not much he can do.

(All images in public domain.)


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