Tuesday, April 16, 2013

42 and Accidental Racist

I heard the Accidental Racist shortly before going to see 4242 is the movie about Jackie Robinson's first year with the Dodgers and all the racism he faced as the first black player in the major leagues.  It was 1947. 

The weight of racism is shown as crushing.  White and Colored bathrooms in the South.  Blacks can't stay in white hotels even in many parts of the North.  Branch Ricky, the Dodger owner who decides he wants to bring up a black player - well colored or Negro in those days - has his manager kicked out of baseball by the commissioner of baseball as retaliation.  The other Dodger players wrote up a petition against playing with a black player.   And the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman hurls epithets at Robinson that were nastier than the balls his pitchers hurl at Robinson's head.

To whites it wasn't crushing.  It was normal.  It was how things were.  Natural.  They weren't racist.  The other players slowly began to get it when the Philadelphia hotel they always stayed in told them their reservations had been canceled because they had a black player on the team.  Some of them reacted at first by blaming Robinson.  But after Chapmen's tirade on the field, one of the Dodger players finally walks over to Chapmen and tells him off.  Because the team is affected by the racism against Robinson, the other players begin to get it.  Peewee Reese, a player I got to see when the Dodgers moved out to Los Angeles in the 50's, plays a pivotal role in 'learning' about racism and how to stand up to it.  I'll leave it like that so as not to spoil it for those who haven't seen the movie. 

After we saw the film, I thought about the responses I've heard about other historical movies:  "Well, that's all in the past.  We don't have racism any more." This wasn't that long ago, it happened in my lifetime, though before I was old enough to know anything about it.

Like Robinson's teammates on the Dodgers who are only discovering racism through Robinson, Paisley has no idea that a Confederate flag has a negative meaning until the clerk at Starbucks reacts.  The flag is a powerful symbol, not of personal prejudice, but of institutional racism.  And while slavery ended, it was quickly replaced by an oppressive set of laws and practices that made blacks second class citizens to all the whites.  And when the most overt signs of legal barriers to blacks were dismantled - separate water fountains and bathrooms, separate schools and pools, etc. - there were still plenty of institutional barriers - financial barriers like redlining by banks and realtors, educational barriers, employment barriers, and marriage barriers to name some of the most significant, that made the black path to the American dream much, much harder.

Accidental Racist is taking a lot of hits from detractors.  Here's an example from Conservative Blog Central that has the "I'm not responsible for history" theme: 
Mr. Paisley is typical of white left-wingers who think this country is horrible because of blips in the past where we weren't on our best behavior or living up to our ideals. Jim Crow laws were awful. Segregation, etc., all of it was bad, and an affront to what this country says it stands for. But we reversed course long ago. A lot of men died to reverse that course, but nobody seems to remember that. Any racism that continues in this country is the fault of individuals, and I refuse to join the pity party and say that slavery is my fault.
No, you aren't responsible for slavery, but if you have ancestors who benefited from slave labor you've inherited some of that benefit either in actual tangible wealth or in an inherited sense of entitlement and superiority.  A lot more people than slave owners benefited.  People involved in shipping benefited.  Even if they didn't carry slaves, those ships that did were not in competition with those that didn't.  Merchants benefited if they  made profits from goods that slaves helped produce.  Consumers got cheaper goods.  But even if there was no tangible benefit, whites everywhere inherited the belief they were superior to blacks.  Even liberal whites. It permeates our culture. 

The point isn't to make people feel guilty.  Rather it's to just recognize the injustice that still exists and help to dismantle those institutions that put blacks at a disadvantage. 

Leonard Pitts makes this point at the end of this critique of Paisley's assertion that whites can't walk in black skin:
But the song also fails in a more subtle, yet substantive way. Twice, Paisley speaks of the impossibility of imagining life from the African-American perspective: “I try to put myself in your shoes,” he sings, “and that’s a good place to begin, but it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin.” As if African-American life is so mysterious and exotic, so alien to all other streams of American life, that unless you were born to it, you cannot hope to comprehend it.
That’ a copout — and a disappointment. Say what you will about his song, but also say this: Paisley is in earnest. His heart — this is neither boilerplate nor faint praise — is in the right place. Credit him for the courage, rare in music, almost unheard of in country music, to confront this most thankless of topics. But courage and earnestness will net him nothing without honesty.
Every day, we imagine the lives of people who aren’t like us. Those who care to try seem to have no trouble empathizing with, say, Cuban exiles separated from family, or Muslims shunned by Islamophobes. For a songwriter, inhabiting other people’s lives is practically the job description. Bruce Springsteen was not a Vietnam vet when he sang Born In The USA.
But where African-American life is concerned, one frequently hears Paisley’s lament: how a white man is locked into his own perspective. That’s baloney. Both history and the present day are replete with white people — Clifford Durr, Thaddeus Stevens, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leon Litwack, Tim Wise — who seemed to have no great difficulty accessing black life.
One suspects one difference is that they refused to be hobbled by white guilt, the reflexive need to deny the undeniable, defend the indefensible, explain the inexplicable. They declined to be paralyzed by the baggage of history. One suspects they felt not guilt, but simple human obligation.
We Are Respectable Negroes blog has a long and interesting discussion on this.  Here are a few parts:
"In the post-civil rights era, white folks apparently just want "forgiveness" and to "get past" this race stuff. Black and brown folks want some type of justice and an acknowledgement of how structural inequality along the color line persists into the present. The former want to limit racism to "mean words" and "hurt feelings." The latter would like to discuss substantive efforts at improving live chances and the social inequalities caused by racism, both structural and inter-personal. . .
Because America is "a country without a history"--perhaps except for black and brown folks--there is no reasonable way to negotiate this impasse.

This dynamic is made even more complicated by how white privilege allows white folks to conveniently discover their own history on terms that are amenable to them.

This move is often used to blunt conversations about how racial inequality is trans-historical with a living past and present, one that shapes American society even in the post-civil rights era."
Despite these criticisms, Accidental Racist at least cracks open the door on a subject many whites refuse to acknowledge - the continued existence of racism.  Paisley, like the Dodger players for the first time seeing racism from the receiving end, is now at a point where you can have a conversation that gets a little deeper into what Confederate flags symbolize to African-Americans, about how racism isn't simply about epithets, but more importantly about the legal, educational, and financial infrastructures that make being white a lot easier than being black.  And Paisley sings
"Lookin' like I got a lot to learn, but from my point of view . . ."

Recognizing he's got more to learn and that what he believes is "my point of view" rather than "reality" is a big deal.  It's the start to remodeling one's world view.  

Do go see 42 and take the kids above seven. 
And listen to Accidental Racist. 

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