Thursday, January 21, 2010

Our "Negro Problem" (for publication 2/12/10)

Senator Hilary Clinton was desperate prior to West Virginia’s 2008 Democratic primary. A surging Barack Obama had erased Clinton’s delegate lead and shattered the aura of inevitability that surrounded her candidacy. Trying to build a fire-wall, Clinton turned to West Virginia.

Some commentators seized upon Appalachia’s reputation for ignorance and poverty and castigated Clinton’s strategy as a cynical appeal to the uninformed. “The electorate’s lowest common denominator” one pundit called Appalachian voters. Others suggested a darker appeal to racism which was thought to pervade West Virginia. So, when Clinton won with 67% of the vote, the suspicion was confirmed in the eyes of some.

“West Virginia voters revealed they are the most racist in the country”, John K. Wilson said flatly in The Huffington Post.

But, if Wilson was right at the time, then white West Virginians experienced a miraculous transformation because in the general election they gave Democratic nominee Barack Obama more than 40% of their votes, a figure that exceeded Obama’s share of white votes in twenty other states including two, Virginia and North Carolina, that he won. Were West Virginia’s black population proportional to its size nationally, Obama might have won here as well.

While the election results exposed as myth Wilson’s claims of rampant racism, stereotypes and exaggerations such as his, even grievous ones, require some basis in fact. Those facts are supplied by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in “Colored People”, a memoir of his childhood in Piedmont, West Virginia.

Gates, a Harvard University professor, has written numerous books and hosts a PBS television series, but he’s probably best known for last year’s confrontation with a white Cambridge, Massachusetts policeman that ended up being resolved with President Obama over beers on the White House lawn.

Gates was born in 1950 when West Virginia was racially bifurcated. Restaurants, theatres, jobs, and public transportation were segregated as was the educational system. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 “Brown vs. The Board of Education” decision, West Virginia University waited until 1962 to welcome its first black varsity athlete.

Gates notes the collective impact of institutional racism and he discusses the more subtle forms of discrimination that continued after integration and to this day. But the power of his narrative is in stories about individuals and relationships damaged by a forced separateness that bred mistrust and misunderstanding, truncated friendships, smothered aspirations, and kindled a corrosive resentment on both sides of the color line.

It’s stunning to think that this is the lived experience of people only in their 50’s and, while racism is hardly extinct, remarkable that there has been so much improvement. The point was driven home when, not long after reading “Colored People”, I visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee, site of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination.

The exhibits are supplemented by a succession of closed circuit TV screens that run a continuous loop of contemporaneous newscasts ensuring that Bull Connor will turn dogs and fire hoses on peaceful demonstrators from now until eternity.

Amid those images of dignity and chaos there appeared a young Senator Robert Byrd whose luscious pompadour was even then three years out of style in New York and Washington, but not in Charleston and not at the WWVA Jamboree. His softly rounded nose and chin defeated the chiseled cracker look to which he aspired, but the pompadour was flawless, a signal as certain as Sarah Palin’s dropped “g’s” that its owner was a tribune of the common man . . . the common white man.

Byrd was a former Klansman and backslapping raconteur of the Dixiecrat persuasion. On screen he was playing the brooding Cassandra, warning of the sinister Communist hand lurking behind the trouble-making “coloreds”.

Suddenly the screen cut to another image and Byrd was gone. I emerged from the museum wondering if it had been a dream and how such a man could have evolved to become what some now call “the conscience of the United States Senate”. And how could we white West Virginians have evolved from enthusiastic segregationists to become an electorate that gave a black presidential candidate more than 40% of our votes?

One of Gates’ stories suggests an explanation. His older brother, Rocky, then an eighth grader, had apparently qualified to become the first black student to win a Golden Horseshoe Award . . . the state's Nobel Prize for achievement in West Virginia history. But, Rocky was denied not by legal discrimination, which was then past, but by the personal prejudice of a school board member. The injustice was reported to Gates’ father by another board member who was moved to remorse by his conscience and too much to drink.

It seems fitting, even necessary, that change began in such small, squalid ways and gradually evolved into something greater and more principled.

Robert Byrd has said that his greatest regret was his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He has since compensated mightily. Perhaps by voting for a black presidential candidate at nearly the rate of white voters nationwide and possibly in proportion to the way we would have voted for any Democratic candidate, white West Virginians have acknowledged our regret. And we and our senator, whose pompadour remains flawless, can know we have grown.