Two Steps Back

I have tried my entire life to overcome my legacy as a Southerner. Now, there are good things about being from the South, but we seem to have a hard time kicking our racism habit. We do stupid things then blink our eyes in feigned innocence and proclaim we had no idea. Yes, you did. Sometimes we take things that try to mitigate our former ignorance and decide to make them ours. We just don’t get it.

Who is the “we” I’m talking about? Some white people who can’t or won’t move out of the 19th or 20th Century as far as racism is concerned.

After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, many jurisdictions in Southern states closed their public schools to thwart the intent of the ruling. This happened in my home town. Because all public schools were closed, the segregated, African American schools were, too. The difference was white families pooled resources, formed “private academies” which held classes in the former public school buildings, hired the former public school teachers, and education went on much as it would have as a public school. African Americans who could afford it moved to jurisdictions that didn’t close their public schools, but most black communities tried to hold classes in church basements or private homes, without the resources the private academies had, i.e., a wealth of trained teachers, current textbooks, and extracurricular activities.

I attended one of these “academies” for several years, but at the time I didn’t understand the implications. To me, it was just school. My education certainly didn’t suffer. When I entered public school in the 6th grade, I was reading at a higher grade level, my math skills were two years ahead, and most of the 6th grade was a repetition of what I’d already been taught. Though I received a more than decent education, I’m not advocating these “academies.” The point is African American families didn’t have these options, and by the time public schools were re-opened, many African American students were academically far behind their white peers. Some never caught up.

In 2004 my home state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, had one of those rare moments of insight. After receiving a gift from an estate of one million dollars, the Commonwealth established the “Brown v. Board of Education Scholarships” for those who missed out on educational opportunities when the public schools were closed. Let’s recall who actually “missed out” on a chance for an education? Not me, and not all the white kids in the “academies.” I’ll concede that there were some white children who did not attend the makeshift academies, but they were few.

Since the inception of that scholarship, 70 have been awarded–some (and the Commonwealth won’t say how many) have gone to whites. The administrator of the scholarship fund indicates that both white and African American children lost the opportunity to go to school and so both should be eligible for the scholarships. Indeed, she wants to get the word out to whites so they can take advantage of it. I think she has her proportions skewed. The vast majority of people who “lost the opportunity” for an education were African American, and I believe that’s where the scholarships should go. As I said, I didn’t lose a chance for an education nor did the great majority of my classmates, and, consequently, I don’t deserve such a scholarship. I would never dream of even applying for one.

One of the African American recipients of the scholarship raises a good point. What if one of the scholarships went to a member of a family who supported segregation? That, to me, would be a slap in the face to those who fought and bled and died for equal opportunity. The person who thought up the scholarship indicated he certainly had African American, not white, students in mind. He indicated he had a hard time accepting that white children’s education suffered. I agree.

So, this post is titled, “Two Steps Back.” What’s the other step? I find this so outrageous, I don’t know if I can write much about it without elevating my blood pressure. Someone setting up the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans this past weekend hired “comedian” Reggie Brown, an Obama impersonator. Brown came on stage in his Obama persona and proceeded to tell racial joke after racial joke. The attendees hooted and laughed, but when he switched to dissing the slate of Republican Presidential hopefuls, he got booed and booted from the stage.

I’m sorry, when is it acceptable for anyone to make racial jokes? Some talking heads on morning TV tried to spin it as the audience expressing disapproval of Brown’s schtick, but, come on, if you hire an Obama impersonator for a mostly white, very conservative group, you knew exactly what you were getting. And if you watch the YouTube video of the event, you’ll see the audience thought he was hilarious until he started in on making fun of Republicans.

These are the days when my optimism about a post-racial world wanes. Sadly, neither of these backward steps surprises me.

I live for your constructive comments.

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