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White America needs to heal itself of its racial animus
by T.D. Williams

Last weekend, during a writing retreat, I ended up in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Iowa entered the Union as a free state and was a hub for the Underground Railroad, but I wasn’t surprised to see a handful of Confederate flags flying from homes as I drove through towns called Solon and North Liberty. Ours has never been a populace with an honest understanding of its own history.

Mount Vernon itself was quaint and comforting, a small town that seemed like a propaganda piece about an America I’ve never known to exist except in the abstract imaginings of politicians who cynically hark back to “the good old days.” Main Street housed a local health food co-op, an independent coffee shop that sold art and trinkets, a Neapolitan-style pizza shop with a wood-fired oven, and several antique shops.

At one antique shop called Polly Ann’s, I found a bunch of artifacts of our more overtly racist past: a glass with a Sambo caricature playing the banjo; a series of framed Cream of Wheat ads featuring happy “darkies” speaking broken English; mammy-themed salt-and-pepper shakers; cartoons starring big-lipped spear-chuckers.

I also found an Aug. 27, 1965, issue of Life magazine, which was a bargain at $7—$10 to $20 cheaper than any of the racist memorabilia. An article bemoaning the proliferation of guns in the U.S. showed an ad for a rifle called the N****r Getter. Then again, racism has always been more profitable in America than any genuine commitment of black American life to the historical record.

Black riots in America have always struck me as an amplification of the slow inward riot within our hearts in the face of societal contempt. I planned to frame the cover and hang it—a tribute to and reminder of the complicated history of the black struggle against inequality, racism and oppression. Instead I ended up reading the issue from cover to cover Wednesday night, as frustration and indignation ran its natural course in Charlotte, N.C., and exploded into violence.

Over 50 years later, there is little difference between the frustration and injustice then and now. Black people are still raging aimlessly as the victims of white supremacy pile up, lives ruined at the hands of those who enforce “law.” Then, just as now, many in the media and in the public sphere inverted rhetoric and revised narratives in order to maintain a sense of self-respect and innocence in the face of its moral turpitude. The aggressor becomes the objective observer; the victims the immoral antagonists.

Two weeks before the ’65 Watts riots, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, upon signing the Voting Rights Act, said, “Today, the Negro story and the American story fuse and blend.”

The Life editorial astutely acknowledged that “the promise of American democracy has always aroused expectations that take more than laws to fulfill.” Amen. In human matters, changes of policy must been accompanied by changes in attitudes and within individual hearts. Equality for minority groups necessitates understanding and depth of empathy rather than empty posturing. Empathy for blacks has never been a strong point among Americans.

In 1965, as the Watts riot calmed, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker compared blacks to “monkeys in the zoo.” He doubled down on the condescension and contempt that spurred the riots: “We’re on the top, and they are on the bottom.” In 2016, Rep. Robert Pittenger echoed that tone-deaf condescension and contempt in claiming blacks in Charlotte “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”

Toward the back of the issue of Life, that article on “the U.S. gun problem” lamented the availability and indiscriminate sale of firearms. The more things change, the more they stay the same. “You Can Arm Yourself in the Five-and-Dime,” the headline screams in big, bold font.

There’s an accompanying picture of an ad for a gun deemed the “[N****r Getter],” which comes with a “[N****r Back Guarantee].” The clerk at the Florida gun store elaborated on the N.R. Davis 12-gauge shotgun: “Shoot a [n****r] with it, bring it back and we’ll give you your money back—and we’ll let you keep the gun too.” It was like reading a prophecy of George Zimmerman’s killing of Travon Martin.

This was in 1965, a year in which, according to Ohio Trump campaign chair Kathy Miller (who seems either too obtuse to breathe air or too offensive to deserve it), racism didn’t exist.

It’s easy to write Miller off as a kook with an aberrational viewpoint, but it’s also dishonest to do so. Miller’s individual insanity is symptomatic of a significant percentage of white America’s collective insanity. These are people who lack any semblance of accountability or empathy. The media dubs them extremists to avoid reckoning with the uncomfortable and damning truth that the extreme is not so distant in tenor and belief from the norm.

Miller is the campaign chair for a candidate who has drawn substantial interest and support from the American public. The candidate is a charlatan, a grifter, a sexist and a racist. He enjoys the support of a significant portion of Americans because these people live in an ahistorical vacuum and view American history only through distorted lenses that reflect their own delusions back to them.

They live in a world where black people created racism (racism against whites and racism against themselves), where black people have had the same educational opportunities as whites as well as unfair advantages, where whites are blameless victims, bewildered by the inferior, dark animals among them. They live in a world that is a direct inversion of reality.

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