The reactions to Attorney General Eric Holder's pronouncement in February 2009 that America is a "nation of cowards" when it comes to racial matters largely seemed to prove his point. Dismissing Holder as "needlessly provocative," America retreated back into its corner and turned its back on the potential for a real conversation on its racial past.
What if, instead of craven, the country is just forgetful?
On Monday, Adam Liptak of the New York Times presented the story of John Hithon. Suing his supervisor at a Tyson Foods chicken plant in Gadsden, Alabama for racial discrimination, Hithon testified to his manager's habit of referring to him -- and other black employees -- as "boy." Other plant workers came forward to corroborate Hithon's story and attested to the "mean and derogatory" nature of the manager's comportment toward black employees.
The federal appeals court in Atlanta, however, disagreed with the contention of Hithon and multiple appeals courts -- including the Supreme Court of the United States -- that anything was amiss, terming the use of "boy" in such a manner "ambiguous stray remarks" that could best be understood as "conversational."
Increasingly, it seems that the rush to declare the Obama presidency the harbinger of a "post-racial America" has coincided with a concurrent rush to forget what was once widely known. The link between diminutive terms such as "boy" and the American legacy of state-sponsored racial subjugation and segregation should not have to be restated -- yet here we are.
Neither should the legacy of as violent a pejorative as the n-word, but that's a conversation we had a couple weeks ago, too. And during July's public drama over Shirley Sherrod's botched dismissal from her Department of Agriculture post, the issue was raised of whether the extrajudicial murder of Shirley Sherrod's father -- he was shot to death outside of a courthouse -- qualified as a lynching. (The American Spectator's Jeffrey Lord attempted to argue that only those left hanging from trees can be described as victims of lynchings. Others have eloquently and forcefully rebutted Lord's ridiculous claims; I will simply add that such a perspective requires one to believe that Emmett Till was never lynched.)
A harsher take on the status quo would suggest that this is a nation still boiling over with racial tensions. Instead, consider the possibility that America's fundamental problem has to do with popular memory.
The racial progress of the past several decades has given American popular culture all the reason it needed to shrug off the most unattractive episodes of its past. As the heyday of the civil rights movement becomes smaller in the distance, the mainstream, government-endorsed nature of racial subjugation becomes obscured. It's far easier to remember the racial antagonists of yore as a vigilante fringe rather than an expressions of conventional sentiment.
This would explain why there barely exists a popular memory of an incident such as the 1873 Colfax massacre. And, at least in part, why the likes of Glenn Beck can endlessly tut-tut over the horrors of liberation theology without once pausing to consider its place within the broader picture of minority responses to discrimination. It would also explain why, every other generation or so, the nation has the same conversations over immigration -- be the immigrant offenders Germans and Irish Catholics, Italians, Jews or Mexicans.
If the nation had a greater capacity for retention, perhaps more folks would have noticed that the same questions asked now concerning Muslims -- Can Muslims be good Americans? -- were raised in past generations regarding Catholics. A leading Protestant magazine during the lead up to the 1928 presidential election described Democratic candidate -- and Catholic -- Alfred Smith as a member of an "alien culture," while it was argued prominently that "Catholics hold and teach their children a political creed which is un-American and opposed to liberty of conscience." Just how substantively different is that, really, from the Dallas pastor nowadays who posits that Islam promotes pedophilia, or the defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate in Tennessee who tried to argue that Islam is not a religion but a "cult"?
At the moment, America finds itself enthralled with the AMC character Don Draper, a man constantly on the run from his own identity whose motto amounts to: "Move forward. It will shock you how much it never happened." But just as Mad Men's fourth season shows Draper at his breaking point and the limits of his personal credo, the flaws inherent in the nation's collective amnesia have rarely been more starkly front and center.
Do we have any right to expect the course of this national conversation to change? If the country's -- selectively remembered -- history is any indicator, not a chance. It was originally with reference to Napoleon III that it was written that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce." Over on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart makes this same argument, in his own way, four nights a week. So why have any doubt that will be new Shirley Sherrods and John Hithons -- and Laura Schlessingers and Glenn Becks -- again and again throughout the years to come?
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