Bloomberg Businessweek's article about the return of aggressive mortgage lending products is illustrated on the cover of the magazine with a cartoon that is evidence of the return of something else: overt public racism. The cartoon depicts an African-American caricature with large eyes, full lips, and an exaggerated expression of greed, in a two-story pink house, grasping at green bills that overflow from the house.
In the year 2013, shortly after the historic reelection of America's first African-American president, the cover of Businessweek signifies the shocking revival of old school racism of the pre-civil rights era. Is historic progress for African-Americans in positions of power to be accompanied by a resurgence of Jim Crow era racist stereotypes? This cover on a national magazine may be just the most obvious and public display of a historic and relentless undercurrent of racism that may be as American as apple pie.
The illustration has drawn considerable heat, and an apology from Businessweek's editor: "Our cover illustration got strong reactions, which we regret," Josh Tyrangiel said in a statement to Yahoo News. "If we had to do it over again, we'd do it differently." But, the fact that this illustration survived the editorial process in 2013 is indicative that we have not yet "overcome" as Martin Luther King Jr. had hoped.
Born in 1964, I am a caucasian child of civil rights activists who helped desegregate Durham, North Carolina while they were in graduate school at Duke University. They also helped open a branch of the NAACP in Durham. When we moved from Madison, Wisconsin to Nashville, Tennessee in 1972, I entered a historic class in the Davidson County public schools: I was a student in 3rd grade the first year the school system was forced by federal decree, as a result of a lawsuit, to integrate the public schools. I knew nothing of the historic significance of my classroom. My mother had to show me photos of the segregated South, pictures of water fountains that said "White Only," to make me understand that what I considered to be normal was the result of a prolonged and difficult struggle.
When I was a senior at Vanderbilt University in 1986, I went to Pulaski,Tennessee, birthplace of the KKK, to counter a national gathering of the KKK assembled there to protest the first Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then I went to law school where I studied the history of slave law, Reconstruction period legislation, Jim Crow laws, and the historic Civil Rights era legislation and Constitutional Amendments. After I began my legal practice, I found great joy as a member of my local public school board while supporting The Independent Alliance for Minority Affairs to increase diversity in the independent schools of Los Angeles. And not so long after the events detailed thus far, both historic and personal in nature, I worked to elect our first African-American President, Barack Obama, in 2008 and again in 2012. How could so much happen since my birth only 48 years ago?
But as much as we have progressed as a nation in recovering from our sordid history of slavery, through legislation, lawsuits and majority support for the election of our first African-American president, racism has not been eradicated, and seems to be fully out of the closet, perhaps in reaction to the notable progress of African-Americans. During the campaigning period of President Obama, both times, my Facebook page was filled with outrageous reflections of prejudice that I assumed was no longer expressed. Needless to say, I lost some Facebook "friends" during the election periods. A law school friend of mine who runs a law firm in Alabama told me that racists there had taken up the term "Democrat" during the first Obama election to refer to African-Americans. A look at the electoral map of America is almost identical to the map of pre-civil war slave states.
I do believe that we shall overcome. I believe that racists are a dying breed. On the other hand, I believe we must forever be vigilant for the resurgence of racist stereotypes as evidenced by the Businessweek cover. This display of prejudice should not be tolerated as we fight to overcome our history of racism and endeavor to educate a new generation about the value of diversity.