Reflections on Race and American History

Yesterday, to celebrate MLK-day, I visited Charlotte's Levine Museum of the New South. They had two temporary exhibits up: one about domestic servitude in the reconstruction era and one about the integration of schools in America. It was part heartwarming, part heartbreaking, to hear a black man explain to his 7-year old daughter that "when grandma was your age she couldn't go to the same schools as people who looked different than we do. Now you can go to school with kids who look different than you -- that's way better, isn't it?"

As I was looking at one of the permanent pieces on display -- a political ad from 1950 for a North Carolina senator (or congressman) who asked, apparently rhetorically, "Do you want Negroes sharing the same transportation with your wife and children? Do you want Negroes in your churches? Do you want Negroes to shop at the same stores you do?" etc. -- as I was looking at the advertisement, I was struck by one of those flashes of clarity that almost allows you to see the heaping pile of absurdity (American racism) in all its inglory.

What struck me most was this: the exhibits seem to urge (allow?) over and over again a single, too safe, emotional response: "How horrible. How could they?" So the viewer remains distant, and the exhibit remains essentially unmoving, insofar as the viewer believes that he or she would have been on the side of justice if they had been around "back then."

But the unsettling truth is that whatever positions-of-justice I have taken in my lifetime have been, more or less, consensus positions. I can give myself no credit for supporting a political position because by the time something is recognizably political, there is at least a sizeable minority. I have never been the first in my neighborhood to oppose an injustice. Why should I let myself believe that, if I were 30-years old in 1940 in North Carolina, I would have been on the side of civil rights and racial integration when almost no one else in my county was? The question that the displays should try to elicit should be: "How could I?"

It is easy to look now at displays detailing the injustices of the Jim Crow era and shake one's head, detached, off the hook. But now did not exist then.

It is a terrible thing to know that I probably would have been just like all of the other white people of that time and place -- it causes me to pause and wonder about what injustice I am blind to in 2009. I sit and search and sit and stare blankly -- the only injustice I can see is the injustice I can see.

But there is an incredibly subtle dual moral movement here: as I imagine myself passively accepting the injustices of 1940, my estimation of my moral-self crashes. But as I sit here in 2009, genuinely trying to see some injustice in the world of 2009 that is not already on my radar, I can imagine someone in 1940 sitting in an office earnestly wondering what social injustice he might be sanctioning by his blindness, unable to see Jim Crow.

We incline to imagine that people in 1940 had our consciences--we think, "No, they knew that Jim Crow was injustice"--and that the only difference between us and them is that we are better at obeying our inner-moral compass. It is not so: as I see & imagine myself on the heaping pile of inglory, I allow some of the ghosts of the past a moment of... not forgiveness... something more like sympathy, or understanding. In the wake of this flood of thoughts, I feel both an increasing moral seriousness (in 2009) and a kind of spiritual regeneration, or liberation (in 1940).

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles, I guess.

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