Cognition & Reality

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Racism In The Civil Rights Era

Filed under: Film,Race — drtone @ 1:10 pm

For anyone under the age of about 40, it would be difficult to imagine the state of race relations at the beginning of what is now called the Civil Rights Era. Witnessing the TEA Party and its attacks on President Obama, one is struck by the obvious, but veiled, racism at the back of the vitriol. That the racism is veiled, however, is perhaps the most important thing about it.

Not so long ago, the concept of a Black man in power might not even have occurred in the mind of the most dedicated civil rights activist, White or Black. In 1963, African-Americans had been second-class citizens for a century, and before that, had not, most of them, been citizens at all. Americans were used to the subservience of one race to another. When most Whites saw a Black person, it was as some sort of domestic worker. Black professionals served their own community; it was inconceivable for a White person to seek out an African-American doctor or lawyer, and I use the word “inconceivable” advisedly. No one was free of a racist understanding of the world. No one had ever questioned the position of Whites on top of a world in which those of other races existed to support Whites’ privileged existence, an attitude that extended beyond the borders of the United States and was reflected in the distribution of global power. The world literally belonged to Caucasians.

Everyone had grown up within a system that accepted and depended upon the dominance of White people. As late as the early 1970s, no African-American was in a position of authority over Whites. I have already used the word “inconceivable” and I will use it again: for a Black man or woman to be the boss of any White person was inconceivable, even by individuals who questioned the order of things. For example, we did not see Black head coaches and managers in the major sports until the 1980s. One need only watch either film version of “Imitation of Life” to grasp the how total was the acceptance, by both Whites and Blacks, of their unequality: The plot of the movie, which adopted a relatively progressive point of view, revolves around a young Black girl’s inability to accept how wrong it is for her to “pass” as White.

The inferiority of Blacks was taken for granted. It was, as I pointed out in a previous post, regarded as a matter of scientific fact, hardly questioned until the 1950s (and still accepted by some people to this day). The story is often told about American WWII POW camps, in which Black American soldiers had to sit in the back, behind German and Italian prisoners, when movies were shown. Although the injustice of the situation could not have been lost on many who were there, in the cultural milieu of the time, it could not have been any other way. The US Army itself was segregated, with Blacks mostly relegated to the dirtiest jobs, as many who are still alive remember. One questioned this racial hierarchy at one’s peril.

My purpose here is not to celebrate how far we’ve come. As far as I’m concerned, the United States, having been built by slavery, will always have a long way to go in putting its errors to rights. The point is that it is no wonder that, as I suggested in a previous post, the current view of the Civil Rights Era suffers from inadequate recognition of the circumstances that prevailed at the time.


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