Earlier this week, fellow FTBorg Ashley Miller told a heart-wrenching story of being disowned by her father:
He was with me for Thanksgiving, to meet my mom and stepdad and brother and rest of my family. Except my dad. My mother, who is much wiser than me and deserves full credit for being right, told me not to tell my dad until she could grease the wheels, but I, who wanted to make the boyfriend part of my family, foolishly overreached and talked to my father thinking that she was underestimating his fundamental human decency.
And now my father has just disowned me.
I suppose I am thankful that he waited until the day after Thanksgiving to do it. Not that he told me, he made my stepmother his proxy as he was too angry to speak to me directly. I have been disowned for loving someone my father does not approve of.
If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Maybe locate some tissues first.
Many people in the comments and on Twitter expressed dismayed shock that such disowning could happen in this day and age. After all, Ashley’s dad’s justification for refusing to talk to or interact with his daughter is that she’s dating a guy… who is black. How could such a thing be possible in 2012? Surely we are a more enlightened society and culture now than we were in the distant mists of our shameful history, aren’t we? After all, racism was so… yesterday. We’ve moved on, into this “post-racial” utopia we’ve been hearing so much about, where people are “colour blind” and racism just isn’t a serious problem anymore.
Anyone nodding their head to that last paragraph probably shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house unsupervised.
They may want to wear a helmet too** Someone may need to gently break the bad news about Santa Claus to them as well.
But the shock at such a dramatic story, while understandable given the extreme nature of someone disowning their daughter, betrays the fact that at some level we do believe that we live in a different country and society than we did in the mid 20th century. To the extent that literal lynch mobs and overt segregation (or, closer to this story, miscegenation laws) no longer exist, yes we have made progress. To the extent that those laws have simply been replaced by Stand Your Ground gun laws (thus giving would-be lynchers the legal protection of “feeling threatened”) and predatory lending practices (thus creating segregated communities by proxy), we live in exactly the same country with exactly the same problems.
This blindness to racism, or at least a willingness to accept flimsy misdirection as progress, is matched by another myth – that racism simply diminishes with the passage of time. This myth would also seem to fly in the face of some new evidence:
Racial attitudes have not improved in the four years since the United States elected its first black president, an Associated Press poll finds, as a slight majority of Americans now express prejudice toward blacks whether they recognize those feelings or not. Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.
In all, 51 per cent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 per cent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 per cent, up from 49 per cent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-black attitudes fell.
This is, perhaps, pretty obvious considering how much poison the Republican Party dumped into the well of the body politic, ruthlessly exploiting anti-black sentiment to stoke not just opposition, but hatred of the President. One might expect to see such coarsening of discourse, and a move to accept anti-black statements as their increasing frequency takes the shock and sting from them, at least to white ears. But those of you who are at the head of the class also know, by now, that liberals don’t get to pat ourselves too firmly on the back just yet:
The poll finds that racial prejudice is not limited to one group of partisans. Although Republicans were more likely than Democrats to express racial prejudice in the questions measuring explicit racism (79 per cent among Republicans compared with 32 per cent among Democrats), the implicit test found little difference between the two parties. That test showed a majority of both Democrats and Republicans held anti-black feelings (55 per cent of Democrats and 64 per cent of Republicans), as did about half of political independents (49 per cent).
There’s two things to take away from this finding. First, it underscores the general thesis that anti-racists and race observers (myself among them) have been trying to advance for a while: we live in a racist culture. It’s not that there are a few “racists” that spoil the fun for all us good “not racist” folks – racism is as American as apple pie and manifest destiny*. It is a feature, not a bug, of the history of our society, and the sooner we come to grips with that fact, the sooner we can disabuse ourselves of the Barton-esque re-telling of our ‘post-racial’ country.
The second lesson this finding teaches us comes from the first cutaway: “Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008”. Despite many soothing and popular reassurances regarding the “moral arc of the universe”, things can and do get worse. We cannot eliminate racism by simply waiting for it to go away on its own. There will always be those who are willing to exploit our history, hoping to distract people long enough to defraud them. We do ourselves no favours by archly refusing to fight, preferring instead to allow the passage of time to solve the problem.
If we’re going to solve the problem of racial enmity, and I hope that’s something we see as a good thing, then we need to start by taking it seriously. We do not have the luxury of ignoring race, and for some of us this is more true than for others. Without vigilance and resistance, we will begin to lose the gains that we have made, and see tragic stories like Ashley reassert themselves as the new normal.
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*Or, for those of us north of the border, as Canadian as poutine and geopolitical irrelevance.
**I am being taken to task for the ableism in this statement. I should have been more careful and thought through what was implied in the ‘joke’. I clearly did not, and I apologize. I will try and be more aware of this issue in my writing going forward.