Can we talk about racism?
At noon today, I will present my synopsis of Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women from Little Rock by David Margolick. Two weeks ago, I presented my synopsis of Inherently Unequal: The Betrayal of Unequal Rights by the Supreme Court, 1865-1903 by Lawrence Goldstone. I did not enjoy reading either book. They are both very much worth reading, but I do not like to be reminded of, or contemplate, our horrendously offensive, wrong, shameful and destructive racist past.
For example, both books have gripping, ghastly descriptions of lynchings (two different lynchings, years and miles apart). From Inherently Unequal:
BETWEEN 1890 AND 1903, 1,889 lynchings were conducted in the United States. In 1,405 of those cases, the victims were black.
…In her pamphlet Lynch Law in Georgia, Ida B. Wells-Barnett wrote, “During six weeks of the months of March and April just past  twelve colored men were lynched in Georgia … The real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that he has no rights that the law will enforce.”
Inherently Unequal is a chronicle of the legal decisions handed down by the Supreme Court that legalized “separate” everything – separate public accommodations, separate schools, separate railroad cars. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) is the best known of those decisions, but there were others, all reinforcing this practice. And, make no mistake: these decisions came in an era in which white people in power not only believed, but acted on their belief, that white people were in fact better than, superior to black people. Again, from the book:
Few white Americans questioned the premise that one race predominated because it deserved to. Arguments were made that any attempt to “civilize” African-Americans would cause more problems than it solved.
The second book, Elizabeth and Hazel, is basically all narrative, centering on the incident at Little Rock Central High School in September, 1957, as the school finally carried out the decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the decision that finally overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. The two women, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery, were two teenage girls on that 1957 day. Elizabeth, trying to enter the school, and Hazel, caught in one unforgettable and utterly revealing photograph with a look and act of opposition and sheer hatred that is impossible to miss. Take a good look at the photograph:
As I read the second book, I realized again that white people do not get, and never will get, the depth and the actions and the long-lasting harm of racism. The book tells the sad story of a far-too-fragile reconciliation between two actual women, Elizabeth and Hazel. And, the book reveals just how much so many white people seek to either delude themselves, or whitewash their own racist past. Consider these lines, from the book:
Fifty years earlier, Grace Lorch had told the angry mob surrounding Elizabeth that in six months they’d all be ashamed of themselves. There was little evidence that she was right. Apart from Hazel and Mary Ann Burleson, who had apologized on Oprah, no one in the photograph or in the crowd that day or in the mob inside Central that year had ever come forward.
The Democrat-Gazette reported that the consensus among a gathering of Central graduates from fifty years earlier was that only “a handful” of students had misbehaved and that the Nine had generally been embraced. A former Central teacher insisted that the press had exaggerated what had been “routine misbehavior.” …A handful of students did stand apart, she agreed: the handful who had treated the black students like human beings. Among the nine of them, she speculated, they had encountered maybe five whites who fit that description.
“I was very dismayed when I read in yesterday’s paper that the student body ‘welcomed us.’ I didn’t feel it,” (Said Elizabeth). “I know the difference between an apology and someone who is just trying to make themselves feel good,” she said. “If you can’t name what you did, it’s not an apology.”
So… can we talk about racism? If you think that racism was not real, wide-spread, ugly, destructive, and lastingly harmful to this country, you have some reading to do. And, if you think racism has been conquered fully, well… let me just tell you one sad very recent story that proves it hasn’t.
After the death of Whitney Houston, the ugly, hateful racist hatred came through again. On the open comments thread of one prominent news site, there were countless comments that in one way or another stated that Houston was “n” trash. The site had successfully found ways to filter out comments that actually used the “n” word, so the people leaving these comments intentionally misspelled the word to get around the filter. The racism was absolutely dripping.
We could describe so many other very current stories of still-ever-present racism — including policy decisions that really do reveal racism underlying the decisions. Juan Williams, so eloquent in his work on Eyes on the Prize, describes the use of code words used to replace/hide “overt” racism. But the code words reveal plenty. Of course, any such accusation is always rejected by those using such “code words,” just as the white people of Little Rock “insisted that the press had exaggerated what had been ‘routine misbehavior.’”
But…don’t be deceived – and don’t deceive yourself.
The Goldstone book is the more academic of the two, but still has enough stories of horrible actions by white people against African Americans to move any thinking and feeling person to shame and sadness. The book Elizabeth and Hazel is practically all narrative. I would like to encourage you to put it on your reading list. It really is a story that reveals the depth and the enduring nature of this enduring problem.
Here is a review of Elizabeth and Hazel, Blacks, Whites, and Grays by Louis P. Masur, that says that it is a much more honest look at race relations than the popular The Help. Here’s the concluding paragraph of this review:
Elizabeth and Hazel serves to explode the simplifications of The Help and exposes the limits of apology and forgiveness. There is nothing about which to feel upbeat, no easy moral, no simple narrative. The story is a corrective to our collective fantasy that we can rectify the past. The moment captured on September 4, 1957, was grotesque and irredeemable. It still is.
And here is a pointed paragraph from the review Elusive Empathy: David Margolick’s Book “Elizabeth and Hazel” Shows Why We Still Can’t Just Get Along by Michael Henry Adams:
Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery are proxies for two Americas, one black and one white, one still scarred by the past, the other eager to, at last, leave the past behind; indifferent to ‘yesterday’s’ social ills and hell-bent on preventing reverse discrimination now. Their intertwined story in Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, is a vivid illustration of how, so many well-intentioned efforts to the contrary, fear and misunderstanding continue to trump even our common humanity.
As I have described many times on this blog, I speak regularly to some rather diverse audiences. I present synopses of business books to a wide array of business audiences. But I also present synopses of books on social justice, poverty, and “nonprofit” issues. Twice a month, I speak to the Urban Engagement Book Club sponsored by CitySquare (formerly Central Dallas Ministries). Usually, these are the books I read that stop me in my tracks. These two books certainly did.
One reason that we stop and think about the great causes on Martin Luther King Day is that no one has replaced him. It was his voice that was so strong, and his message could not be ignored. There is no other Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so we return to his words so often – especially on this day.
In his clear voice, he reminded us of the dangers, the wrongs, the challenges that faced us. He did so with great passion, and with great depth and substance.
It is almost impossible to single out a quote or two. There are so many. And, yes, he repeated key phrases, in different places. But for this Martin Luther King Day, let me point out two of his themes. One, his attention to the great injustice of poverty. The other, the reminder that there is great dignity in honest, physical work.
#1 – Regarding poverty. These excerpts come from his Nobel Lecture, delivered on December 11, 1964, after receiving the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. (You can read the full Lecture here).
In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. Glistening towers of glass and steel easily seen from their slum dwellings spring up almost overnight. Jet liners speed over their ghettoes at 600 miles an hour; satellites streak through outer space and reveal details of the moon. President Johnson, in his State of the Union Message1, emphasized this contradiction when he heralded the United States’ “highest standard of living in the world”, and deplored that it was accompanied by “dislocation; loss of jobs, and the specter of poverty in the midst of plenty.”
In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers’ keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne interpreted this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed:
No man is an Iland, intire of its selfe:
every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine:
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were,
as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were:
any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde:
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls:
it tolls for thee.
Notice again these lines:
In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich.
There is a lot of discussion these days about the top 1%, and then the rest of us. But those at the “bottom” literally suffer “the agony of the poor.” And, at the very least, there shoud be genuine compassion from all of us, regardless of where we fall in the “percentages,” for this agony – for these real people, who suffer genuine difficulty.
#2 – Regarding the dignity of genuine, hard work.
There are some who argue that our society is inviting laziness, “dependence” on programs of one kind or another. Personally, I think this is an incorrect and misplaced “reading” of the culture… But Dr. King would never have stood for “handouts” to replace hard work. Just last night, the Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a film went to Octavia Spencer who played a maid in the Civil Rights era movie “The Help.” Spencer quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in her acceptance:
“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
(Read more about her acceptance speech here).
The line that best captures this was delivered by Dr. King in Jamaica in 1965:
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
Care about, and help the poor. Do whatever work you have to do very well, for there is great dignity and importance in all labor that uplifts humanity.
In his speech in Jamaica, Dr. King said:
“The time is always right to do right.”
Yes, it is. It is always the time to do right…
These are reminders for us all on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.