Americans have trouble facing racism past, present

March 16, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Doug Moore, a community college professor out Kansas City, Mo., way, said some whites who saw the movie "Rosewood" got up and left the theater in a huff. When he asked them why, the reply invariably was, "We don't believe whites were that bad."

Whites in the 1920s, Moore said, were that bad. But he said the whites he talked to remained unconvinced.

Such is the tragedy of the Great White American Inability to Face History. John Singleton's "Rosewood" has been out three weeks. The film tells the tale of a 1923 incident in which white racists drove blacks from Rosewood, Fla., and then burned the town to the ground. Official Florida statistics put the death toll at six blacks and two whites killed. Black survivors of the ordeal put the black body count much higher.

"Rosewood" is not an uplifting film. It is, in fact, a quite gruesome one. Those with weak stomachs should avoid it. I don't recommend taking children under 15 to see it. But the events depicted in it -- the lynchings, burnings, mutilations -- are part of our grisly historic record, possibly the ugliest stain on America's pathetic history of violence.

The sad truth is that Rosewood was not an isolated incident. In April of 1866 -- Easter Sunday -- a mob of over 100 armed white men killed two hundred black men, women and children in Colfax, La. From April 29 to May 4 in 1866, 46 blacks and two whites were killed in rioting in Memphis, Tenn.

That information comes from two college professors, Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck. Tolnay is a sociology professor at the University of Albany in New York. Beck is a sociology professor at the University of Georgia. They collaborated on the book "A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930." Perhaps those Kansas City folks who stormed out of the "Rosewood" viewing should have read Tolnay and Beck's book first. It is enlightening but somewhat grisly.

Black lynching victims were sometimes mutilated while they were still alive. I'm not going to give you details here. You might not want to read them. You certainly wouldn't want your child to read them. But that such things happened, and happened often, are part of the historic record. Anybody who says otherwise shows he or she might be reading somebody's history, but they're not reading ours.

And it's not reading our own history that allows us to be so damn smug about our alleged lack of racism. We already know the Great African-American Delusion that none of us can be racist. Now we come to the Great White American Delusion that says white Americans are no longer racist.

That's quite a belief, considering how deeply racism -- particularly the anti-black kind -- is ingrained in this country. And that racism isn't just manifested in the violence of a Rosewood or a Colfax, or in those lynchings that, on some occasions, turned into festive affairs. The racism is part of the culture. That's why many white Americans, even today, can watch "Gone With The Wind" and listen to Rhett Butler's reference to "mindless darkies" and not be even remotely offended.

The French, interestingly enough, have no such noble ideas about their own racism. During a recent poll, more than 80 percent said they were racist. You would never get such an admission from any American racial group. The irony is that the French were much more liberal in their treatment of blacks than American whites have ever been.

Napoleon, for instance, had a black general, who later regretted that he didn't snap the emperor's neck when he had the chance when the two were embracing. George Washington, by comparison, would never have dreamed of having a black general.

But Singleton's "Rosewood" should do something more than remind us of our racism. Those whites beating a retreat from the film never got to ask the question that black and white viewers should be asking at the film's end: How does such a thing occur in a democratic society? Have we been, historically, so committed to racism and violence that we would cavalierly toss constitutional protections out of the window when wholesale violence is being committed against an ethnic group that we don't like?

The answer in Rosewood and countless other cases was obviously "yes." Which should make us ask how we can prevent such a thing from ever happening again. If the whites who fled from their own grisly history in Kansas City are any indication, that's a question we're not willing to answer yet.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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