I was born in the South in 1959 – four years after Rosa Parks’ arrest – in a state that seceded from the Union before the outbreak of the Civil War.
In my early life, Jim Crow laws were still enforced. And although the Civil Rights Act enforced desegregation in 1964, Jim Crow attitudes remained unwritten laws in the hearts of most whites in the nooks and crannies of my city.
I attended segregated elementary schools, fought in race riots in junior high school, and was nearly murdered in the mid-‘70s when I took a turn, innocently, into the “wrong neighborhood” as a high-schooler. A white man, roaming the streets in his car to find random blacks to shoot, tried to kill me and two of my friends with eight well-aimed gunshots from his illegal M-14 rifle. Two shots blew through my gas tank. One hit Rudy in his left shoulder. The rest punctured different parts of my car, which I never drove again.
Back then, racial oppression was real. Today, it’s pure fiction – used as a tactic for political power; as nostalgia for blacks and whites who missed out on the glory days of the Civil Rights Movement; as a cover for envy; and as an ax over the heads of whites who dread the high costs of being labeled as racists.
When I think of real oppression in America’s bad old days compared to today’s “oppression,” two stories flash into my mind:
One was about George Lewis, known to history as “Slave George.” Owned by Lilburne and Isham Lewis, George accidentally broke a water pitcher that belonged to their mother. In a fit of demonic rage, the brothers tied the teenager to the floor, lit up a fireplace, and forced other slaves to witness what happens when slaves get lazy.
Lilburne chopped George’s neck with an ax, then ordered a slave to cut him up piece by piece, and throw his body parts into the fire as petrified slaves watched. The dismemberment went on until 2 a.m.
For the record, murdering and mutilating slaves was illegal in Kentucky. When the news hit town, the brothers were arrested and became such pariahs that Lilburne committed suicide shortly after his bail. The butchery shocked 19th century sensibilities, but it would have never been possible without a social numbness to the peculiar institution.
That was real racism.
The second story is about Isaac Woodard, who grew up in my birth state of North Carolina. Wearing his Army uniform, he boarded a Greyhound bus in 1946 bound for the Carolinas after serving in WWII.
When the bus came to a rest stop, Sgt. Woodard told the driver he needed to use the restroom. When the driver refused, the two argued a bit before Woodard was finally given permission to relieve himself. The driver called the police. Police at a South Carolina rest stop forcibly removed the sergeant from the bus, beat him with a nightstick in a nearby alley, and punched in his eyes as they took him to jail on fake charges of drinking beer at the back of the bus. While in jail, police beat Woodard so badly in his eyes with a Billy club that they gouged his eyes out. Each globe was ruptured from the sockets – beyond repair. He left the jail blind and with partial amnesia.
That was real racism.
What passes for racism today is a joke, shameful, and desecrates the bitter toil of blacks and whites who shed their blood believing that their sacrifice would someday help strengthen the fragile bonds of brotherhood between the races. They’re lives made that bond sacred. Baseless, reckless accusations of racism spit on centuries painstaking progress.
You know there’s something pathological going on when a black man can be elected president twice, and we now walk on more racial eggshells than ever before.
Last week I watched CNN’s Don Lemon and Charles Blow – two multi-millionaires– have a lopsided conversation about the need to “have a conversation about race.”
They complained – with great exasperation – about a Kansas county official, Louis Klemp, who told a black woman at a hearing that they were part of a “master race” because they both have gapped teeth. She snickered, appearing to take the corny joke for what it was.
But pontificating from TV land, Lemon and Blow were breathlessly dumbfounded about how such a toxic environment has been created in America that a white man could feel free to use such a vile Nazi term, and think it’s OK. Whether or not he should continue in his job was a no-brainer.
Kansas Gov. Jeff Coyler, a Republican, chimed in.
“Racial and discriminative language have no place in our society …” Coyler sheepishly wrote, exonerating himself at Klemp’s expense.
So today, “racial and discriminative language” that was clearly not used to discriminate or to inflict racial harm, is racist? Saying “master race” to garner gapped-tooth solidarity, or saying “guerilla tactics” to praise the skill of a black tennis pro, or “nationalism” to put country first, is all racism in the 21st century.
Meanwhile at another hearing in the same week, Sen. Kamala Harris said ICE and the Ku Klux Klan is kind of the same thing. Crickets.
Americans are beyond sick of all the non-stop focus on race – blacks and whites. Accusations are so false, so ruthless, so pathological and cultish, that it’s easy to predict that some sort of backlash is coming. Americans have had enough.
From antebellum abolitionists, to the Underground Railroad, to the Civil Rights Movement, countless whites have gladly given up their reputations, their blood, and their lives to right the wrongs of slavery, discrimination and institutional racism in America. It’s horrifically disingenuous and immoral for those who’ve never experienced true oppression, to bludgeon those who are not true racists, with the blunt ax of racism.
America is just as much an experiment as it has ever been. Perhaps this season, we should look at our progress in race relations as a glass that’s half full and be extremely grateful to those who’ve gone before us – black and white – who gave us centuries of progress to build on.
And if we are to build something worth passing along to our children, we have to work as hard as they did to strengthen the sacred bonds they so painstakingly stranded together.