Editor’s Note: I got the idea for this from a Bill Maher interview with Bob Costas. I’d always thought of Costas as a good sports reporter, but his short visit to “Real Time” demonstrated to me what an incisive thinker he is, and that he can do a lot more than just talk about basketballs and hockey sticks. I’m also a Civil War buff, so that had something to do with my interest in this subject matter.

Racism Isn’t Just Black or White

“Why can’t people with common sense hold two truths in their heads at the same time?”

— Bob Costas

Americans like things black or white, right or wrong, either/or, and we don’t like nuance. John Wayne and Ronald Reagan probably didn’t even know what the word meant. We’re uncomfortable with facts that create uncertainties on subjects about which we feel strongly, especially when those gray areas involve issues as emotional as race.  

Our president and attorney general are black, we have a black Supreme Court justice, and African-Americans are successfully climbing the ladder in business, sports, entertainment and academia, yet many civil rights activists act as if there’s been no progress since 1865. At the same time, the Right pretends racism is extinct in America, so minorities should just stop whining about it. And the vast gray area somewhere between Al Sharpton and Rush Limbaugh — that’s for wishy-washy eggheads, who like to split hairs and think too much.

To commemorate a 1965 freedom march that ended with state troopers and the Ku Klux Klan beating peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama recently spoke in Selma, Alabama, to an audience that included only one prominent Republican — former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura. In what’s likely to become an iconic photograph, the president is shown addressing the crowd from under the bridge’s nameplate.

This made me curious, so I did a little research on Edmund Pettus, who turned out to be a Civil War general, U.S. senator and Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK. It’s not remarkable that, in 1940, Alabamians would have named a bridge for a racist, nor is it surprising it continued to carry this bigot’s name in 1965. However, it’s a bit ironic that a black president would be speaking to the survivors of Bloody Sunday at a bridge that still honors a Klansman in 2015.

A far more famous Southern hero is General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a millionaire slave trader and Rebel cavalry officer who infamously murdered captured black soldiers and burned a barracks filled with wounded Union troops. After the war, he formed the KKK, and became its first Grand Dragon. This patron saint of lynch mobs has a monument in Selma, and both a park and a high school honor him in his home state of Tennessee.

Forrest also had a high school named for him in Jacksonville, Florida. And, in 2011, Mississippi governor (and former chairman of the Republican National Committee) Haley Barbour refused to intercede on behalf of the NAACP when his state considered issuing commemorative license plates featuring the former Klansman. This would be like going to Berlin and finding a Josef Goebbels postage stamp or a Heinrich Himmler High School.  

Reverence for racists is also reflected in the Confederate flag, which is ubiquitous at municipal buildings throughout the South and on pickup trucks nationwide. When African-Americans object to the banner of their enslavement being flown, conservatives call it oversensitivity or political correctness run amok; however, isn’t the desire to be tolerant toward the “patriots” who keep flying this flag political correctness as well?

In a country where fraternities sing traditional racist chants and Republicans work to disenfranchise minority voters, it’s no wonder blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, don’t trust the Justice Department’s conclusion that white policeman Darren Wilson was innocent of wrongdoing in the death of Michael Brown. Meanwhile, conservatives scoff at the DOJ’s finding that Ferguson’s systemic use of the police to harass poor blacks was the city’s clever way to fund local government without raising taxes.

Isn’t it possible, even likely, that both findings are true? Civil rights activists often point to high rates of black incarceration as a sign of racism, but couldn’t it also be true that minorities really are committing more crimes per capita? And although most black kids in hoodies aren’t criminals, most white cops who kill black suspects aren’t either.

The Right’s efforts to suppress black voting rights could be a sign of racism. Or perhaps it’s not bigotry at all, and they’re simply striving to suppress Democratic turnout by preventing minorities from voting. It’s also entirely possible that both explanations are true.

Comic Bill Maher repeatedly opines, “Not all Republicans are racists, but if you happen to be a racist, have I got party for you.” It’s mean-spirited and politically incorrect, but it also has an element of truth — like the notion that not all Southerners are racists, but if you happen to be one, you’ll probably be more at home in Alabama or Texas than Connecticut.

In 1964, conservative icon Barry Goldwater flouted political correctness and amused the Right by suggesting that, “This country would be better off if we sawed off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea.” I sometimes feel the same way about the South. If the Confederacy had won the Civil War and gained independence, the U.S. would be a very different and — from a liberal point of view — a much more progressive country.

Of course, the continued existence of the Confederacy wouldn’t have been a boon for its African-Americans, who might still be slaves and would certainly have problems voting today. Or maybe not. Maybe the Civil War really was, as the Right so often insists, about “states’ rights,” not slavery and racism, and, without the damn Yankees trying to force their Northern values on them, southerners might have been less resistant to the principle that all men are created equal.

Racism or something else? Why must alternatives always contain the conjunction “or”? Can’t the “or” sometimes be replaced with an “and”? For example, couldn’t it be simultaneously true that America remains a deeply divided and racially troubled society, and we’ve also made unbelievably giant strides toward equality and justice for all Americans?

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