Sunday, March 22, 2009

Black History, White Apology: Proof Obama's America is not post-racial

Stephen Cobb, Executive Producer of Dare Not Walk Alone writes:

At the end of February I posted a video on YouTube titled "Black History, White Apology." Using footage from Dare Not Walk Alone, the two and a half minute video shows a special church service held in 2004 in which the church apologized to African Americans who had been turned away from the church in 1964 and arrested. Within a few weeks it had been viewed over 1,000 times and received more than two dozen comments. Sadly, some of those comments were deeply racist in nature. I deleted the worst of them but what you read there now is representative and some of it is quite depressing.

I posted the video because of the "apologies" offered last month by Rupert Murdoch and his New York Post relating to a cartoon published in that paper. The cartoon portrayed the architect of our government's proposed stimulus package as very black chimpanzee lying in a pool of blood, shot dead by a pair of white and arguably smug looking white police officers from NYPD.

Coming less than 30 days into first African American presidency of these United States, this cartoon was loudly condemned as offensive. Personally, as someone who voted for Barack Obama, I found it not only offensive but deeply distasteful and frankly very worrying. Apart from anything else, the trigger for the cartoon, an incident in which a woman's face was savagely ripped off by a chimpanzee, was not something that should have been made light of in any context; add in the history of NYPD race relations and the widely known history of "monkey" and "ape" as racial slurs, plus the fact that the president is both black and the architect of the stimulus package, and I think a joke about a police shooting of said architect, comparing him to an animal that violently attacked a woman, is clearly very, very wrong.

In this context, the apologies by the NY Post and Mr. Murdoch were very, very weak. In fact, I'd say they bordered on smug and insulting. But as I was reading through blog posts about the whole incident I realized a lot of people didn't "get" what was wrong with both the cartoon and the apologies. Indeed, there was a lot of talk about how the cartoon was not offensive because it refers to the writer of the stimulus package and the president didn't actually write the package and so: no offense, no foul, no apology needed.

It seems to me that people who think like that probably don't spend much time thinking about what it's like to live your life on the receiving end of pervasive, violent, and demeaning prejudice. I thought the apology video might put things in perspective. However, in the description of the YouTube video I did not reference the cartoon or draw any direct parallels between the church apology and the New York Post incident. I assumed the connections were fairly obvious. (I had already posted a separate clip "Why the New York Post cartoon was offensive" in which two of the women involved in the 1964 church integration incidents described how a deacon of the church called them "monkeys.")

Basically I wanted to show the world what a heartfelt apology from white Americans to black Americans looked like. Then the reactions started to pour in. They ranged from the electronic equivalent of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning to a vicious condemnation of the minister leading the church service because he appeared to be reading the words of apology (maybe the video was misleading--he was actually struggling not to choke up with emotion).

The comments continue to come in. While nobody can reasonably claim that YouTube is an accurate reflection of a nation's state of mind, it's clear from some of these comments that we have not yet reached the "post-racial" state of mind that some have posited. Particularly worrying to me is this sense that "white people have nothing to apologize for."

Here's how I see it. I'm white. My ancestors ruthlessly exploited the people and resources of Africa, Australia, and North America. The standard of living and quality of education that I enjoyed as a child flowed from the "benefits" of that exploitation. In a very real sense that gave me an unfair advantage in life. So yes, if you are black, I'd like to let you know I'm sorry that happened. I apologize for what my people did. And I make that apology regardless of whether or not any actual relative of mine did anything wrong.

Sure, my parents were hard working white people. But they lived in a society, the standard of living of which flowed in no small part from massive theft of property and exploitation of people, the "benefits" of which are obvious to anyone who cares to look, in countries as diverse as Britain, the United States, France, and Belgium. Many citizens of those countries have worked for generations to make the most of what they have, but you can't escape the fact that some of what they had was at one point stolen (like the hill my house sits on in upstate New York, taken by force from the original owners of this land).

Living in denial of how we got here will not help us achieve a better future for ourselves and our children, a future of which we are all equally worthy.