Several new articles reflect what I think are good and bad approaches to dealing with historic injustices that I described in a recent post.
For some reason, a 1971 Playboy interview of John Wayne just went viral. In it, he said, “I believe in white supremacy,” and justified “our so-called stealing of our country” from Native Americans, among other problematic things. In an all-too-common pattern, this story became the focus of the latest skirmish in a long culture war. Some people immediately made strong statements condemning Mr. Wayne, prompting “what about” counter-attacks that other people’s statements were even worse, as well as a festival of trolling.
It would be much more helpful to note that less than 50 years ago, it was considered acceptable by some public figures to openly endorse white supremacy and our outrageous treatment of Native Americans. It would be so much better if incidents like this would stimulate serious, open reflection about where we are today and how we got here.
An excellent article by Washington Post columnist Max Boot shows how our population knows little of our history, citing a study showing that more people know about Michael Jackson’s songs than the Bill of Rights. While schools need to do a better job of teaching history, that wouldn’t be enough. Many other institutions need to help us know our history.
USA Today made a valuable contribution to our understanding by examining more than 900 college and university yearbooks from 120 schools in 25 states in the 1970s and 1980s, finding more than 200 examples of offensive or racist material. It found “questionable photos virtually everywhere [it] looked – what amounted to a montage of everyday, casual bigotry memorialized among pages that captured daily life on campuses.”
This historical evidence should be useful to all of us, especially those who immediately condemned Virginia Governor Ralph Northam based on the assumption that when his yearbook was published in 1984 virtually everyone believed that use of blackface was obviously unacceptable. More important than our judgment of him (or Mr. Wayne) is that we have important information about our society that many of us – especially those of us who aren’t black – didn’t know.
In a more encouraging story, Rev. William Barber II and former Vice President Al Gore suggested that Mr. Northam could redeem himself by protecting an historic African American community from being torn apart by construction of a major natural gas pipeline pumping station. Rev. Barber said that too much public attention has been paid to what blackface says about cultural racism. Instead, he said we should “[d]eal with the systemic racism. Voting rights. Economic inequality. You want to deal with racism — stop getting all excited over cultural things and let’s get down to the real issue about racism.”
In my view, cultural issues are very important – and should be handled respectfully with a goal of promoting understanding and reconciliation as much as possible, helping us to see the world through others’ eyes.
A friend told me that my original post seemed optimistic about the potential for reconciliation. However, it reflects my aspirations, not my expectations. I certainly hope for effective efforts promoting truth and reconciliation. But, considering the current political environment, I don’t expect much of that to happen, especially in the short term. I would love to be wrong about that.