By Jeb Bladine • President / Publisher • 

Jeb Bladine: Journey from the wrong side of history Compilation of a 3-part series on racism

 

Editor’s Note: This article is a compilation of three Whatchamacolumns that were published on July 3, 10 and 27, 2020, with limited editing for transition and content.

By Jeb Bladine
News-Register

I am not a racist.

That thought was self-soothing after the eight-minute suffocation of George Floyd; it deflected feelings of personal guilt during demonstrations against centuries of systemic racism, oppression and sanctioned violence.

Then came Ibram Kendi’s book, “How To Be An Antiracist,” which expands and refines this 1979 statement by activist Angela Davis: “In a racist society, it is not enough to be nonracist, we must be antiracist.”

My thoughts time-traveled to a childhood devoid of immediate family racism. But here in Oregon we lacked the experiences of kinfolk in Texas, one of seven original slave-holding states of the Confederacy.

Later in life, an intense graduate program half-filled with people of color reinforced my feelings of being nonracist. But today, my lifetime of white male privilege is confronted by reminders that nonracist thinking doesn’t change a racist society.

Kendi argues that saying, “I am not a racist” is itself a form of racism. Author Meredith Atwood, another “nonracist,” wrote in Psychology Today: “I contributed to racism for decades in ways that were unconscious and covert. I contributed to racism in ways that were also flagrantly racist. I continue to contribute.”

There is a backlash. Rod Dreher, writing in The American Conservative, termed Kendi’s antiracism movement a form of totalitarianism: “(It) is not an attempt to persuade anyone. It’s a life story interspersed with a litany of pronouncements about what you have to do to be good rather than evil … All there is is power. You either wield it or are controlled by it. And power is simply the ability to implement racist or antiracist policy.”

The subject is not new. However, history’s unlikely intersection of George Floyd, Donald Trump and COVID-19 has propelled Americans into previously untapped levels of introspection about racial inequalities.

For my part, that involves a review of the history, the intransigence and the acknowledgment of a racist society, not just nationally, but here in Oregon and Yamhill County. I’m trying to do that within the context of Kendi’s interview with journalist Jeff Chang, when he said:

“If you grow up in a society where it’s sort of constantly raining racist ideas on your head and you don’t have an umbrella, to claim that you have never been wet in your life, I mean, it’s just preposterous, right? … in order to admit and confess, you have to be self-aware and recognize.”

Where ‘all men created equal’

I am not a racist.

But that’s not enough, and today’s complex issues require us to reflect at least briefly on the history of a land where “all men are created equal.”

Three centuries of transatlantic triangular slave trade connected Europe, West Africa and the Americas. Slavers traded European products for human cargo from the African coast; survivors were sold as laborers for large plantations in the Americas; products harvested by those slaves were traded for European goods, and on it continued.

We all know the U.S. Civil War was fought over economic, cultural and political issues surrounding institutionalized slavery in the South. We don’t all appreciate the depth of that evil and the wedges of racism it drove into the long-term psyche of Americans.

In 1859, Oregon became the only state to join the Union under a Black exclusion law. Our per-capita Ku Klux Klan membership in the 1920s was highest in the country. That helps explain why Black citizens represent 1.9 percent of the state’s population compared to 12.8 percent nationwide.

Chinese people who came to the California Gold Rush became primary laborers for the completion of our transcontinental railroad system. But single-race immigration was banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and resulting violence was similar to treatment of other minorities by White Americans.

As a nation, we have segregated and abused generations of Black citizens; demonized Chinese immigrants; herded Japanese-Americans and American Indians into internment camps and reservations. Our history represents the antithesis of antiracism.

In 1999, Oregon acknowledged its past “racial discrimination, exclusion, bigotry and great injustice toward people of color, including Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Pacific Islanders.” A legislative resolution stated:

“(We) recognize Oregon’s discriminatory history, acknowledge people of all races and ethnic backgrounds who have worked for positive change and celebrate the progress made and encourage participation in honest interracial dialogue essential to positive social change … (we) resolve to increase public awareness of racial discrimination and work toward the full participation of racial minorities in all aspects of Oregon life, and that this Day of Acknowledgment provides focus for planning constructive dialogues and actions as we work toward a future of racial equality.”

It was a start to a still-long journey.

A time for introspection

I don’t think I’m a racist. But we all need to explore our own hearts and minds.

In Yamhill County, we mostly are long-range spectators to racial strife in a nation with 14 times our Black population percentage. Our self-assessment of racist tendencies is more intellectual hypothesis than real life experience.

We accept, respect and value our county’s 16 percent Latino community — actually, 37, 32 and 23 percent, respectively, in Dayton, Lafayette and McMinnville. Yet, Latino neighbors remain under-represented in local governance, community leadership and accumulation of wealth.

This week, the Oregon Legislature’s allocation of $62 million was described as a fund “to help mitigate the devastating impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the Black community statewide. A community that has been made vulnerable by historical disinvestment and institutional racism.”

Such concern, some say, is just dangerous liberal thinking. Conservative Andrew McCarthy, author and National Review contributing editor, wrote in June:

“The most dangerous threat to the African-American community in America is not cops. It is liberals. The United States is not institutionally racist. The political system, the criminal-justice system, and academe overflow with political progressives. The notion that they would tolerate racism in their institutions would be laughable if sensible people were encouraged to think about it rather than mindlessly accept it … where it exists, racial discrimination is a conscious state of mind. The reality is that our institutions of opinion are so obsessively racialist, no one in America has the luxury of being unconscious about racism.”

Thanks, Andrew, for confirming that I am not a racist. Except for one thing: that reasoning is hogwash. Acknowledging both conscious and subconscious influences from centuries of abhorrent American racism does not have to mean you’re a raging white supremacist.

Perhaps events of 2020 will encourage Americans to grapple honestly with realities of past, current and future racism. Then, in the words of Ibram X. Kendi, perhaps more people “can stop denying that they may have racist ideas, that they may be supporting racist policies, that they are doing nothing in the face of racial inequity.”

I have not been antiracist. Here’s a beginning – in lower case words of simple conviction, not as promotion for the controversial national organization: black lives matter.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com or 503-687-1223.

Comments

@@pager@@
Web Design and Web Development by Buildable