Saturday, April 20, 2013

Willfully ignorant about race

Over at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote about how Americans are not in a position to speak about race because we simply do not know our own history: Americans, he wrote, "do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that 'not knowing' is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible."

A recent episode of the Daily Show is a good example. Guest Denise Kiernan has written a book about how Oak Ridge TN, a town created in the mid-1940s for the creation of material for the first atomic bomb, led to a lot of jobs for women, but remained racially segregated. Kiernan says: "after all, this was the South in 1942," to which Jon responds, "even in a manufacturing town in an integrated army." (See around minute 20.)

So here's the deal: the South was segregated like a plantation. Blacks and whites lived together but drank from different water fountains and went to different schools. We took the same buses but sat in different parts – and the whites were the ones who decided where. We did not have segregated cities. The North did

And the Army was not by any means integrated during World War II. President Truman desegregated the military forces in 1948. Elderly Germans remember being "liberated by a segregated US army" in 1945.

Americans need to accept the depth and extent of racism in its past. The North often makes itself out to be freedom fighters who opposed slavery. We have yet to come to terms with the pro-slavery demonstrations in the North, the existence of Black Codes outside the South at the beginning of the 19th century, the building codes and housing practices that effectively segregated northern cities, etc.

As Coates puts it, we are willfully ignorant.