The racist madness of Jim Crow

September 24, 1997|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom have tackled the perennial American heartache in their massive, comprehensive new book, "America in Black and White: One Nation Indivisible."

From the founding of this republic and the compromises this "peculiar institution" required, on through the horrible Civil War and the civil rights movement, the thread of race has run through our history -- and it is inseparable from the history and destiny of this country.

In the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, the Yankel Rosenbaum murder and the Million Man March, the Thernstrom book is particularly well-timed. Here is painstaking research and carefully assembled data on the most explosive social questions with which we struggle.

Have we, as many blacks believe, made very little progress since the days of open racism and Jim Crow laws? Are whites irredeemably hostile to blacks? Is the reverse true?

The book opens with a review of the American South in the years between the Civil War and 1940 -- a time when three-quarters of America's black population still lived there.

Some will welcome the reminder of what life was like for blacks -- the better to stoke white guilt. But the Thernstroms seem to be offering this review more as a matter of history -- and to marvel at how far we have come in such a relatively short period of time.

When Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal visited the American South in 1940, as many as 87 percent of all blacks lived below the poverty line. And poverty in those days was not the poverty of today.

They were, as Mr. Myrdal wrote, destitute. "They live from day to day and have scant security for the future." The median income of married black couples was only 34 percent that of white couples in 1935-36. And it wasn't a lack of hard work that kept them so impoverished.

Sixty percent of white Southern families with incomes above the poverty line employed blacks as household servants.

In one Southern state during the Depression, the Thernstroms relate, a typical work week for a black domestic was six 12-hour work days for a salary of between $3 and $8 a week. That would translate roughly into $30 to $80 a week in 1997 dollars.

The schools blacks attended, when they attended, were abysmal. "When they learn to spell dog and cat," wrote one Virginia newspaper, "they throw away the hoe."

The social symbols of inferiority enforced in the Jim Crow South were quite complex and breathtakingly cruel. Not only were blacks expected to give way on any sidewalk for a white person, to accept being addressed by their first names by all whites, even white children, and to drink from segregated water fountains, they were forced to conform to even more bizarre rituals.

Because they were required to ride at the back of buses, black passengers had first to enter at the front and pay their fare, and then get off and proceed to the back door to find a seat.

When blacks shopped, they were considered to be at the back of the line, even if they arrived at the register first. When it came to buying clothing, hats and gloves, they were never permitted to try these items on, their touch was thought to be so contaminating.

All of the normal social interactions among people were poisoned between blacks and whites. Blacks could not eat in the same restaurants, use the same restrooms or be treated in the same hospital wards.

Newlyweds Colin and Alma Powell, traveling through Virginia in 1962, had to pull off the road and relieve themselves in the woods rather than risk asking for service at a filling station where blacks were not allowed.

Racism was a form of madness, a pathological hatred and cruelty that took its most despicable form in outright murder. Lynching -- which took the lives of hundreds (not, as has often been alleged, thousands) of blacks between 1890 and 1940 -- terrorized every black citizen of the country, to the evident satisfaction of their tormentors.

From that grim history, we have made unbelievable strides. The most popular American leader today is Colin Powell.

Human history is shot through with cruelty and injustice. The American history of racism is not as surprising as our national recovery from it.

Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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