Posts Tagged ‘Jim Crow’

PRECAUTION, NOT PANIC

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as America struggled to birth itself. Now, we face the coronavirus pandemic. To strengthen our souls, looking back may offer a clearer picture of the future.

Is the sky falling? Gray clouds have gathered and they’re darkening. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “It is going to get worse.” At my age, Covid-19 poses a risk, although my health is excellent. Still, the world won’t come to an end.

Am I a Pollyanna? No, a realist. Major events of my 75-year lifetime provide some perspective.

When I was six, Americans were fighting in Korea—wherever that was. At P.S. 174 in Queens, I joined classmates in duck-and-cover drills to protect from a Soviet nuclear attack on New York. Polio still took a heavy toll on children. A friend survived it but emerged with a limp.

Jim Crow was alive and well in the south and practiced unofficially elsewhere. This, too, was a health scare since African Americans’ health was imperiled by being hung from a tree or shot or burned while at home.

The Cold War produced Vietnam. The American toll in Southeast Asia totaled 58,000, including my friend 1LT Howie Schnabolk, an Army medevac pilot shot down on 3 August 1967. Killed and wounded GIs were just part of the story.

The nation was coming apart at the seams. Nightsticks and dogs attacked civil rights marchers. Martin Luther King was assassinated, which led to riots producing death and destruction in urban ghettos. Political unrest forced Lyndon Johnson to forego running for another term as president in 1968. Which gave us Richard Nixon.

American industry took a header. Japanese cars battered Detroit. Then all sorts of industrial jobs fled the Midwest—soon to be known as the Rust Belt—for the American south and then Asia. AIDS emerged in the 1980s. It took the lives of as many as 700,000 Americans, including three of my fraternity brothers.

In the ’90s, the Dot.com Boom lifted a lot of people’s spirits—until the Dot.com Bust sent them plummeting. On 9/11, the Twin Towers fell and turmoil reigned. The nation rose up yet launched a foolish and costly war with Iraq. The stock market soared again until, in 2008, the financial industry collapsed with the market hitting its low point in March 2009.

Yet even recovery from the Great Recession wasn’t enough to calm a deeply divided America. Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

I’ve seen a lot, but so did my parents: The First World War, the Spanish flu (1918-20) which killed over 50 million worldwide and more than half a million Americans, the Depression, World War Two.

In time of crisis, I turn to the English writer Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . you’ll be a Man my son!”

Keep washing your hands. Keep maintaining your social distance. Keep your head on your shoulders and your chin up. Male, female or nonbinary, you’ll be a mensch. And as a nation, we’ll get to sing along with another Briton, Elton John: “I’m Still Standing.”

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CIRCLED WAGONS

Lindsey Graham (R.-So. Carolina), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made a startling statement last Tuesday before flip-flopping on Wednesday. It revealed much about the impeachment inquiry and how a large segment of the country is circling the wagons.

Graham said he wouldn’t read the transcripts of closed-door hearings—open to Republican committee members—released by House Democrats. “I’ve written the whole process off . . . I think this is a bunch of B.S.” Translation: Evidence be damned. This mirrors the attitude of much of pro-Trump white rural America.

“To rural white conservatives,” Robert Leonard wrote in the New York Times (10-14), “their culture is being rubbed out right before their eyes.” Whites see themselves enduring religious prejudice. “Democrats have banned Jesus from the public sphere at great cost to society and the potential salvation of millions.”

Ethnic cleansing in America? Native Americans can sympathize.

Yet according to the Times (10-29), Ralph Drollinger, 65, founder of Capitol Ministries— “Making disciples of Jesus Christ in the political arena”—has been teaching the Gospel to President Trump’s cabinet. So Christianity is very much present in the public sphere. That’s fine—when Bible classes take place before or after working hours.

Are whites really under the gun? Many in post-industrial and rural America are hurting economically. That’s bad for all of us. But examine the economic circumstances of many African Americans and Latinos. Whites now suffering the loss of jobs and hope long have had a great deal of company.

What whites seemingly can’t abide is their loss of majority status and its accompanying power. Who created Jim Crow? Rich whites have always controlled the nation’s wealth, leaving poor whites with one comfort: They could see themselves as superior to all other ethnic groups. Yet in a decade or two, whites will become a plurality—the nation’s largest minority.

If America’s minorities now enjoy increased visibility “at white expense,” the phenomenon is relatively recent. When I was a kid, only one TV show portrayed then-called Negroes—Amos & Andy. It originated as a hit radio show created and performed by whites. Only one TV show presented Jews—Gertrude Berg’s The Goldbergs. Other minorities? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Jewish characters in movies? Rarely. Jewish movie stars? Many, including Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, John Garfield, Judy Holliday, Lee J. Cobb and Shelly Winters—all assigned screen (non-Jewish) names.

To whites who support Donald Trump, who vowed they could again celebrate Christmas, I ask: Has America ever not? I rarely see anything in the media or the public square relating to Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other religious holidays. Christmas in liberal, secular San Francisco? Inescapable.

The truth that frightens so many Trump supporters is this: Whiteness does not constitute the standard for good citizenship and patriotism. What part of “liberty and justice for all” is hard to understand?

Here, let me say that no white person should ever think he or she is second-rate. Condemning anyone for being white also constitutes racism.

So, will Jesus-fearing whites abandon their persecution complex? I don’t know. I do know that  America’s minorities have experienced the real horrors of racism and anti-Semitism. Still do.

If whites can step outside those circled wagons and demand a better America for everyone, they’ll join all Americans in moving forward.

The post will take off next Friday and return on November 22.

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415 MEETS 225

Carolyn, our kids and I spent last weekend in Baton Rouge. Our oldest son, Seth, received his M.S. in Digital Media Art & Engineering from Louisiana State University. A conversation with Seth got me thinking about America’s political divide.

I’ve enjoyed many visits to Louisiana—New Orleans when Yosi lived and performed there (Aaron danced there) and Baton Rouge. Of course, Baton Rouge, area code 225, is quite different from San Francisco, area code 415. 

Baton Rouge gets swampy hot. San Francisco stays foggy cool. Our Mediterranean climate delivers only 23 inches of rain a year. Baton Rouge, drenched by Gulf of Mexico storms, piles up 63 inches. Storms rerouted our Baton Rouge-bound flights to New Orleans.

There are people differences. Folks in Baton Rouge are publicly friendlier. I experienced this southern trait when I lived in not-southern Texas. I offer two reasons: Baton Rouge’s laid-back, small-town/suburban lifestyle contrasts with San Francisco’s urban hustle and bustle (which still falls far short of New York’s). Also, politeness is critical to a society where, historically, small affronts often garnered violent reactions based on a culture valuing honor and taking umbrage at insult. Oh yes, food and music preferences also vary a bit.

State histories certainly diverge. Louisiana was a slave state, part of the Confederacy. Californian, a free state, remained in the Union. Louisiana maintained Jim Crow segregation until federal legislation brought changes. California hid—though not always—much of its racism. And yes, racism remains in both states.

Politically, Louisiana is far more conservative. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s 2016 presidential vote. Hillary Clinton won California with almost 62 percent. For many San Franciscans, a wall exists between the City by the Bay and the Louisiana capital on the banks of Ol’ Man River. I imagine many people in Baton Rouge see the same wall—but from the other side.

Still, I’ve met lots of nice people in Baton Rouge. Some might be more distant in less-public situations but hardly all. The warmth—I’m not talking weather—is human. Last Saturday morning, almost a thousand families gathered for the Engineering College’s graduation at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (named for the LSU basketball great). They came together as we did when Aaron received his B.A. from St. Mary’s College in Moraga across San Francisco Bay. Carolyn and the mom next to her discussed “Game of Thrones.”

Proud and excited, we cheered our graduates—and everyone else’s. These LSU grads represented a diverse student body coming from across the nation and 35 countries. Heavily white to be sure, they were also substantially African American, Latino, Asian and, particularly in petroleum engineering, Middle Eastern.

The tag to my commencement address: Cultural and political differences do exist in America. They always have. But we must never blind ourselves to our similarities. The bonds we share as Americans—as people—may be frayed, but they’re still valid and important. I suspect that among many people across regions, they’re still strong. 

What to do? We can yield to the pessimists—posing as realists—on both the right and left, and build ever-higher walls. Self-righteousness can separate our 415s from our 225s. But we’ll have to shoulder the blame when those walls topple and bury the American Dream to which we only paid lip service.

You’re invited to my party launching Big Truth: New and Collected Stories—Sunday, June 9, 3:30–5 pm at Lokma Turkish restaurant, 1801 Clement Street at 19th Avenue, San Francisco. Yes, you can buy a copy, which I’ll autograph. RSVP with number in party: dhperl@yahoo.com.

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RACISM REVERSED

The recent presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s victory spurred new conversations about racism. Ironically, while America has made great progress, unexpected forms of racism have been cropping up.

White racism, of course, hasn’t disappeared. A week ago, Rep. Steve King (R.-Iowa) represented it by tweeting in support of far-right Dutch prime ministerial candidate Geert Wilders: “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” (Wilders’ party finished second on Wednesday with 20 of 120 parliamentary seats.) King believes non-whites can make no contribution to Holland. This isn’t new for King. In July 2016, he asked on MSNBC, “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?” Last Tuesday, King predicted, “Hispanics and the blacks will be fighting each other” before white Christians become a minority in America in about thirty years.

Western European and American civilizations have accomplished much. We can be proud of this heritage. But humanity being what it is, they also gave the world the Inquisition, colonialism, Hitler and nuclear weapons. Slavery formed a backbone of American economics for centuries. Jim Crow followed for another hundred years. Meanwhile, major civilizations flourished elsewhere. They, too, committed atrocities.

Our faults acknowledged, a great many Americans believe that anyone of any genetic or cultural background can share our nation’s values and enrich our society. So many native-born people and immigrants have. Yet a new group is under attacked.

In some circles, it’s fashionable to condemn white Americans as racist. Not some whites. All. “Progressive” quarters speak of “white privilege.” Yes, whites often have it easier in a society not yet free of racism, overt or subtle. But the concept of “white privilege” is mean-spirited and distorting. It makes “white” or “Caucasian” an epithet in the way anti-Semites make an epithet of “Jew.”

This week, I discovered another variation of anti-white sentiment on a Facebook post. It’s called “white fragility.” In a 2015 article, a (white) woman named Robin DiAngelo, who holds a Ph.D. in multicultural education, told Michigan Radio, “Racism comes out of our pores as white people. It’s the way that we are.” Given that condition, DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility”—whites simply can’t handle the fact that they are racists.

Must genetics or upbringing condemn every white American? In reality, white Americans hold varying views about race and “the other.” So too, individuals in all racial groups hold varying beliefs—including racist attitudes—about people who are different. The problem: If all whites can be tarred with the same brush, white racists and anti-Semites logically can continue spewing foul stereotypes of all other groups.

Racial progress isn’t swift as we’d like, but America will move forward despite those on the far left who, like many on the far right, see genetics as all. In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that 84 percent of whites approve of white-black marriage. That strikes me not as white fragility but as white flexibility.

It also gives me hope that we might—eventually—realize Martin Luther King’s dream that people will be judged on the content of their character rather than on the color of their skin. That is, if the politics of some Americans’ doesn’t devolve into yet another form of racism.

Now for a purely self-serving word: Read the first two chapters of my new novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht on this website. I’ll host a celebration at the end of April, selling and autographing softcover books. Can’t be there? Go to Amazon for a copy in softcover or digital format.

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SMILING FACES

Life seems awfully confusing these days. So it’s only natural to believe that things were better “then”—when everyone (or so it seemed) liked Ike, watched “Ozzie and Harriet” and wore suits and hats (with gloves for the women) downtown. I have my doubts.

I call to witness the American Conservatory Theater’s production of the Kander and Ebb musical, “The Scottsboro Boys.” Being a lover of satire, I liked that the musical was written as a minstrel show, in which whites historically donned blackface and followed a formal pattern of presentation. Except that all the actors but Hal Linden were black and often played whites. The music was good, the cast and staging great, and the character of the Interlocutor, who runs the minstrel show (Linden), thought provoking.

A brief history lesson: In 1931, police arrested nine Negro teenagers getting off a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama on a trumped-up rape charge. The musical takes us into their initial trial and the appeals that followed. The Scottsboro Boys avoided lynching and the electric chair but were all imprisoned for varying lengths of time—years, not months—and gravely wounded by the legal process given that the charges were untrue and one of the two plaintiffs recanted.

And the Interlocutor? Representing the powers that be in the Jim Crow South (and costumed as Colonel Sanders), he is unfailingly polite and cheerful in his encounters with the “boys.” The Interlocutor makes clear that in Alabama, whites and Negroes have their places, and the natural order is benign. When confronted by one of the “boys’” desire to go north, he is stunned. “We’ve always taken care of you,” he states, “and we always will.” Proving that fact and fiction (or drama) go hand in hand, Edward Glaeser (Triumph of the City) cites the mayor of Baltimore, who after a 1910 law prevented African-Americans from buying homes in affluent white neighborhoods, “announced that the law’s supporters were ‘the best friends that the colored people have.’”

The portrait of kindly white society acting as caretaker for “its” Negroes is not new. And it couldn’t have seemed particularly valid if you were a Negro confined to “colored” neighborhoods, restaurants, drinking fountains, waiting rooms and the back of the bus. By the way, one of the show’s numbers, “Jew Money”—the Scottsboro Boys’ appeals lawyer was Jewish—also informs us of attitudes many southerners held regarding “their Jews:” know your place.

But why the Interlocutor’s constant smile, the patter, the jokes? Because the worst aspects of prejudice and injustice come in sugarcoated packages to distort reality. “We love you. We only want the best for you. Just trust us!” provides a handy cover for behavior that’s the opposite. And such remarks are so easy to make.

As we approach the presidential nominating conventions (orgies of self-congratulations during which delegates wield no influence) and the traditional Labor Day start of the campaign (which started last Labor Day, and I’m being generous), it’s worth noting that voters will be offered plenty of smiles and words of good cheer. But unless citizens demand more, the nation’s wellbeing is still likely to be shuffled off, if ever so amiably, and most Americans gently herded to the back of the bus.

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Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.