Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What 'Niggerhead' means for the rest of us

Though the narrative is rarely made this explicit, I believe there's a line of thinking that goes something like this: Racism, as a force in American life, for all intents and purposes ended sometime in 1968. The civil rights bills had been passed, Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, and the work of consolidating the gains of integration was finally consolidated with President Obama's election in 2008. People who want to make a big deal of white-on-black racism are generally "race hustlers" who want to prey on our divisions for their own gain.

So while it's easy to write off Rick Perry's "Niggerhead" moment as a faint echo of a long-ago era—and echo that probably would only be heard in the South, really—I suspect there's a lesson in there for the rest of us. And it comes from this New York Times' article:
One woman said local residents had called the area by that name since long before Mr. Perry and his father had leased the property. 
“It’s a bunch of crock,” said a woman who, like other residents in Throckmorton (population 828), would identify herself by only her first name, Mary. “I’m sorry, we had nothing to do with it. Perry had nothing to do with it. It’s been there all this time. He don’t mean nothing by it, that’s just the name of it. 
She said she believed that the name could be traced back to the “slavery days,” adding, “It’s just something that’s been, long before Perry was even thought of being born.”
 As part of the "racism ended in 1968" meme, I believe, there has been a significant temptation to believe that problems that often plague black communities in America—unemployment, violence, poverty—have nothing to do with the 300 years of slavery and Jim Crow that came before the modern era. "It is what it is," to borrow a phrase, and if that leaves a lot of people who were born with advantages remaining in a position of advantage, well, that's just a coincidence, right? Anybody who really wants to work their way to prosperity—or, at least, a middle class life—can do so if they choose.

But the term "Niggerhead" apparently stuck at this Texas camp for decades past racism's apparent sell-by date in America—and nobody really seemed to give it a second thought until recent years. "It's just something that's been," we're told, without any reflection on why it's been or if it's the way it has to be. When it gets pointed out, the locals get angry and defensive. And why not? It's doubtful any of them were trying to be racist, and now it's a national issue. It's not a dynamic designed to produce thoughtful consideration.

Which is too bad. Racism clearly isn't the same force it was 60 or 70 years ago, but it's foolish to act as though it's legacy doesn't live with us still—sometimes in unexpected ways and places. When "Niggerhead" is a place where white politicians still do business, it suggests there is still work to be done.

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