Topple a few statues, remove some iconic names from American institutions . . . and the ghosts of the past start to escape from history, filling the present moment. It’s called awareness.
Too much awareness can feel like chaos. Not surprisingly, a lot of people would prefer to stick with the old historical narrative, the one that’s so tried and true: This is the land of the free, the home of the brave, the birthplace of democracy. God bless America! (And forget about slavery, Native American genocide, racism, packed prisons, nukes, endless war, etc.)
The question of the moment is whether this narrative is gone for good. Are we merely in the process of making some superficial adjustments or has the national soul truly torn itself open? Will we stop short —once again—of creating a society of compassionate equality? Will we eventually (as soon as possible) retreat to another narrative of American exceptionalism and . . . uh, white power? Or are we in the process of real change?
I confess to being an optimist. The ghosts of the past that are returning to the present moment could be the harbingers of unimaginable change. Even the changes that seem trivial—rebranding Aunt Jemima pancake mix, for instance—have roots that go deep into the national identity and its sources of power.
Consider, for instance, the downfall of Woodrow Wilson, former U.S. president who was also president of Princeton University for eight years. Announcing that Wilson’s name would be removed from Princeton’s public policy school, current president Christopher Eisgruber said, according to BBC News: “Wilson’s racism was significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.”
Wow, that’s no small deal, considering how low the standards for racial stupidity were in the early 20th century. Nonetheless, he explained, Wilson—whose legacy includes barring black students from attending Princeton, who was a friend of the Ku Klux Klan—was revered by Princeton for over a century “not because of, but without regard to or perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.”
Princeton, he went on, “is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored, or excused racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people.”
So America’s racist ignorance is over? Examples keep pouring in. Not only are statues of Confederate generals finally coming down, but Christopher Columbus — colonialist conqueror extraordinaire — apparently has also had his day, with his statues coming down all over the place. And a particularly racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt, depicting the conquering hero grandly astride his horse as a black man and a Native American walk humbly beside (and behind) him, will be removed from in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
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And latter-day colonialist John Wayne, king of the Hollywood cowboys and icon of America’s conquest of the Wild West, is in trouble in Orange County, Calif., where Democratic political leaders are calling for the renaming of John Wayne Airport, thanks to the “resurfacing” of a 1971 Playboy interview, in which he said: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”
A fascinating irony about these words is the way they bounce back to the speaker, whose ignorance of and indifference to his country’s horrific history of racism indicates he was not “educated to a point of responsibility.”
And then there are the brand names that are suddenly gone, so to speak, with the wind. These include Aunt Jemima, a product that dates back to 1893, whose initial model, a woman named Nancy Green, was a former slave. Other brands with stereotypical symbols that are on their way out include Uncle Ben’s rice, Eskimo pies, Cream of Wheat and Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup. “Retiring these products is not ‘political correctness,’” Katha Pollitt writes at The Nation, “it is the removal of a profound racial insult from our grocery stores and kitchen tables.”
And, oh yeah, speaking of Gone with the Wind, that 1939 movie of antebellum nostalgia has been taken off HBO for the time being. Its return will include “a discussion of its historical context,” according to a network spokesperson. And the reality TV show “Cops” is gone after 32 seasons, depriving Americans of the chance to watch the law-and-order game in progress from the comfort of their sofas.
At a deeper level, police accountability is no longer a matter turned over to the police unions. Derek Chauvin, killer of George Floyd, has been charged with second-degree murder, as have the other officers present at the scene of his death. Police departments in California, Texas, Nevada and Washington, D.C. have banned the police use of chokeholds. And the movement to defund militarized police forces, diverting the money to other means of establishing social order, is gaining a political foothold, not only in Minneapolis (ground zero) but New York City.
All of which will hardly matter at all if the changes stop here. The undoing of American racism—of its racist infrastructure—isn’t a simple matter of making reforms or righting a few wrongs. The above changes only matter if they indicate a national rebeginning.
As social theorist and author Joe Feagin put it in a Truthout interview: “. . . in their individual and collective protests and revolts against racial oppression African Americans have long pressed for—indeed, arguably invented—the authentic liberty-and-justice-for-all values that have gradually become more central to this country. The white male ‘founders’ version of ‘liberty and justice’ values were inauthentic, as they actually had in mind freedom for (propertied) white men.”
What matters about the present moment is that change seems to be coming from multiple directions, both outside and within the corridors of political and economic power, as our ignorance shatters and we wake up.