Racism: The curse of our times

I was moved by the footage on the ABC Four Corners program this week showing the torture and tear-gassing of children in a detention centre in the Northern Territory to think about racism in Australia. I have written many posts about racism on my blog. Then I watched the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday on Sky News. One of the highlights was the Mothers of the Movement, African-American mothers whose sons and daughters have died in custody, including Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator. Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee, sat down with the mothers and suggested they band together and speak out about what happened to their children. This is what one of the mothers had to say at the convention: “Hillary Clinton isn’t afraid to say black lives matter. She isn’t afraid to sit at a table with grieving mothers and bear the full force of our anguish. She doesn’t build walls around her heart. Not only did she listen to our problems, she invited us to become part of the solution. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and urging you to say their names.” This is what I wrote in September 2014:
Racism is based on fear and ignorance.
I know that sounds too simple, but I’ve been studying it, both literally and figuratively, for a long time – more than 50 years. Regular readers of this blog will know that. I’ve gone back over my 150 plus posts, and at least 15 of them – probably more but the early ones aren’t as well archived — have racism as a theme.
They range from racial taunts aimed at the Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, an Indigenous star of the Sydney Swans, now Australian Football League minor premiers, to my racist upbringing in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. The latter post, published in 2012, was an admission that my wonderful and loving parents were, like many Americans and Australians, unconscious racists, and that I was a racist, too.
I told tales of what my father used to say to me on the subway surface cars taking us to the city centre: “Don’t sit next to a coloured person on a trolley, they stink.” As I wrote in my 2012 post, “growing up in a white neighbourhood next to a black one, separated by a playground and years of stereotypes and racial incidents, certainly led me and my friends to distrust, if not hate, our black brethren. It wasn’t until I got to university and met African Americans, who were smarter and nicer and sweeter-smelling than me and my Irish-Catholic mates, did I realise what a load of rubbish I’d been taught over the years. It was a valuable lesson to learn, because you’ll never stop being a racist until you admit you are one.”
And that lesson is yet to be learned in the US, I suggest, after what happened in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 when a policeman shot dead 18-year-old Michael Brown who had his hands in the air in the universal sign of surrender. Police claim Brown was trying to grab the officer’s gun, but protesters in the St Louis suburb have been chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” ever since the killing. (Photo above by Michael B. Thomas/AFP)
Policeman Darren Wilson is white, and he shot Michael Brown at least six times, so if he was trying to defend himself, I would imagine he was frightened of a young black man who towered over him, even if he presented no real threat. The suburb of Ferguson has 21,100 residents, about two thirds are black and about 30 per cent are white. In 2000, 50 per cent were black and 44 per cent were white. That seems to me a classic case of whites fleeing a suburb – it happened in my old neighbourhood in Philadelphia. Fear plays a factor in white flight: racial tension increases, older residents say it’s no longer safe, and all you need is one mugging to confirm it for many white residents.
My upbringing instilled such a fear in me, and I thought I was over it, after teaching three years in Harlem in the late sixties and early seventies, where I was mugged once. Then I went to South Africa in 1994 to produce stories on the country’s first multi-racial elections for the Channel Nine Sunday Program. Here’s how I described an incident just a few days before the polls in my 2012 post: “I was walking down the streets of a still tense Johannesburg when I heard someone running behind me, and next thing I knew a black man jostled me. I was scared shitless, until he said very politely: ‘Excuse me.’ I saw a fleeting smile cross his face, as he realised how scared I was, and I felt like an idiot.”
I wondered if other white people felt like this, and I came across a blog by Portland, Oregon computer scientist and writer, Rachel Shadoan, called “Being Shadoan.” Her incisive post is titled “I am racist and so are you” (a better headline than my 2012 post), and this is what she has to say about fear: “How do I know that I’m racist? Once, while living alone, I heard a noise that I took to be someone attempting to break in to my house. Instead of transforming into the Valkyrie I’d always imagined I’d be in such a situation, I proceeded to have the kind of reaction I usually reserve for brown recluse spiders. Which is to say, I hid and called my boyfriend to come rescue me. When he arrived, finding the only other occupant of my house to be my wildly overactive imagination, he asked me, ‘What were you so afraid of?’ Unbidden, the image of a tall, young black man popped into my head. I don’t remember what answer I gave my boyfriend, but I doubt it was ‘young black men’.”
Rachel goes on to recount several other incidents involving black men which provoked fear, and convinced her she was racist. And she poses a question to her readers: ‘Hang on, though, Rachel.’ I can hear you now. ‘Just because you’re afraid of black male strangers doesn’t mean you’re racist. Have you considered that your fear of black men is justified?’ She considers it, but comes up with statistics that show that 69% of whites (72% of the US population) commit violent crimes against white people while 13% of blacks (13% of the US population) commit violent crimes against whites. So she concludes her fear is racism, as I concluded a long time ago on the mean streets of Philadelphia. And racism kills people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the black teenager shot to death by a neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, George Zimmerman, in a gated community in Florida in 2012. I wrote a piece about that incident then, and praised President Barack Obama for his comment about the case: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” My last paragraph was: “Whatever happens in the Trayvon Martin case will provide a good lesson to teach Americans and Australians what’s right and what’s wrong about justice in ‘the greatest country in the world,’ as one of the prosecutors described the US this morning.” George Zimmerman’s trial ended on July 13, 2013, with his acquittal on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. It was a better-run trial than the court in Cairo that convicted Peter Greste and his two Al Jazeera colleagues of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading “false news” about the military coup, but I believe there are a lot of black and white Americans who have doubts about the jury’s verdict on George Zimmerman. (On the other hand, there was a jury unlike the Kangaroo Court in Cairo.)
I mentioned unconscious racism earlier, and I remember a former white principal of the junior high school in Harlem where I taught addressing for the first time the teaching staff, mostly black, about problems that needed to be overcome, and he said: “It’s time to call a spade a spade.” We fell about laughing, and he didn’t last long as principal.
Tony Abbott, who has become an advocate of rights for Indigenous Australians and visits Cape York every year to help young students, had a similar gaffe last week. On launching a project on defining moments in Australian history at the National Museum of Australia, the Prime Minister said: “… the arrival of the First Fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent. Let me repeat that, it was the defining moment in the history of this continent. It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world.” That remark drew criticism from a number of prominent Indigenous Australians, including the chairman of his advisory panel, Warren Mundine: “Well it was a defining moment, there’s no argument about that. It was also a disastrous defining moment for Indigenous people.” The head of the Stolen Generation Council for New South Wales and the ACT, Matilda House, told the ABC’s Sarah Dingle what was wrong with the PM’s comment: “I think politicians really don’t think when they make these one liners and I can’t fathom how a ship or a boat sailed into Sydney Harbour can overtake the 60,000 years before.” When I talked to Tony Abbott before he visited Cape York for the first time in 2008, I told him about my days teaching in Harlem, and said: “You’re going to go up there and spend two weeks teaching and helping Aboriginal children in Cape York. But the real heroes are those teachers who stay. I often think about the staff who stayed behind in Harlem. Remember those who you leave behind in Cape York.” He agreed and has mentioned the heroes who stay behind several times since when talking about Cape York. But Matilda House is right, politicians should think before they speak, especially on something as important as defining moments.
At least he’s talking about it, and a conversation about Indigenous rights and racism is sorely needed in Australia, as it is in America. To return to Ferguson, Missouri, a former member of the school board there, Charles Henson, told Mark Follman of Mother Jones that while police had made mistakes (photo above Charlie Riedel, AP), some of the criticism against them was unfair, and there was hope: “The real hope now is that a light has been shined. There is a lot of work to be done in this community, and if folks in the city government feel that there’s not an issue with regard to bias and race, then we’ve got a problem. Because that’s fuel for another situation like this to happen again, and we can’t take another one of these.”
And the last word about the St Louis suburb where religion has a strong influence on the African-American community should go to Jane Brandon Brown, ambassador for the Kingdom of God International Ministries: “We have to have a conversation, people don’t want to have a conversation about race, and we need this conversation. We have to talk about the racial issues, we have to talk about the racial tensions, and then we have to talk about how we can eradicate it.”

3 thoughts on “Racism: The curse of our times

  1. This comment came from an old mate of mine Ian MacIntosh, and he asked me to post it for him: “Hi Mate! I very much appreciated your evaluation of racism. May I suggest there’s a parallel affliction? When I was about twelve and life centred around sport, hormones and french fries with gravy at the local bop shop, I indeed had misgivings and confusion in regard to the black population of my home town in Nova Scotia. The famed underground railway ended in Nova Scotia and accordingly most townships had substantial black communities within.
    Two of my mates were black. Duck and Eddie were good at school and at sport and we spent our school days in amiable companionship. They however always had reasons to beg off coming to my birthday parties or a day at the beach based at the MacIntosh cottage. They also had to, “work with Dad,” whenever I suggested they come to McCarron’s Tea Room for the aforementioned french fry or butterscotch Sundae. A day arrived that I fed all such incongruities into my emerging powers of reason and I turned to my father for advice. “Dad, are we racist like the Southern Americans we read about?” ‘why do you ask,’ he responded. I gave him the foregoing observations and he looked at me sadly and responded, “Well, son, we’re in fact worse than the Americans.” “What do you mean?” “Well, if Eddie or Duck ever went to McCarron’s, old Hughie would make sure they were served, that’s the law, but he would give instruction to make them feel uncomfortable.”
    “You see, son, we’re worse than racists…we’re apathetic.”
    Thanks, Mac. A great story and very pertinent.

  2. Hello Tom, I always enjoy your fine blogs .. my comment in relation to Racism
    No child born on this Planet is a Racist .. until they learn how too and become one
    From their parents up bringing
    (that’s my tiny take on it )


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