Oct/Nov 2007  •   Salon

The Darkie Ages

by Tom Dooley

It's getting harder and harder for me to muster up the gumption to write an essay for public consumption. Even inadvertently rhyming "gumption" and "consumption" doesn't make it any easier. Competing obligations, home and work-related, usually win out in the battle for my time, and besides, perhaps as a sign of age-induced wisdom, I'm less and less motivated to put down in writing my various aggravations.

Contributing to my reticence, my good friend Tim has expressed embarrassment on my behalf when I rant about politics and classism—he finds undignified my sweeping generalizations and plebeian affiliations. Well, along those lines, I still think the religious right are agents of the anti-Christ and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country is a greater danger to national security than Al Qaeda, but for some reason I'm less inclined to keep trying to make that case.

My need to rant has subsided in part because the right-wingers in this country have been working overtime to make themselves easy targets. Too easy. I don't have to make the case that assholes like Senator Craig from Idaho are hypocritical, short-sighted, close-minded, and crooked, if assholes like Senator Craig are going to routinely supply headlines to that effect. In the wake of what has to be approaching a critical mass of inescapable truth about the shenanigans of our current administration and their unholy cabal of neo-con, war profiteering, 700 Club-pandering allies, my religious and Republican friends (not necessarily the same people) are less and less likely to spout off about how glad they are Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry aren't running this country. And now Alan Greenspan himself has come out with a book and a rash of television interviews, expressing much of what I'd want to say anyway about politics and the economy in this country (Clinton, good; Bush/Cheney, bad; Republicans since Contract with America, lying bastards; Iraq war, entered under false pretenses; using government to enrich the wealthy while sticking it to the poor and middle class, not such a good, practical idea in the long run; etc.).

But then, in spite of all this complacency, something comes along, as it did this last spring, and thinking about it gets me so flabbergasted, I don't know what else to do but pound the keyboard for awhile and express some outrage.

What came along wasn't the tragic and senseless loss of 32 Hokies in April at the hands of Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, nor was it the equally tragic and senseless loss of over 150 men, women, and children the very next day (and many more since) at the hands of suicide bombers in Iraq. No, it was the fact that in May of 2007, a small town in Georgia made headlines because they held their first racially integrated prom. In prior years, the students had always had two proms, a white one and a black one. Two homecoming queens, etc. How, I wondered, does something like this still occur in this great land of ours? The fact that it did and does speaks volumes about who we are as a people.

The first thing it says is we have entirely too many backwards, racist hicks in this country.

I'm not saying every white person who lives in Georgia is a hick, nor am I saying all hicks are racists. I'm just saying, wherever they may be holed up, practicing their backwards, racist ways, there are just too many of the kind of hicks and crackers who would even conceive of a segregated prom, not to mention the ones who still insist on having one. I don't believe the problem is confined to small towns in the deep South, either.

Recently, folks got bent out of shape about Don Imus calling the Rutgers women's basketball team a bunch of "nappy-headed ho's." Well, at least in Don's defense, he was just flapping his gums. Sure, what he said was offensive and mean and directed at people who absolutely didn't deserve it. But even as someone who doesn't care for the guy, I've never heard him express racial animus toward Black people, and I don't think Don Imus is the real problem in this regard.

The real problem is people who will perpetuate a custom of racially segregated proms, and, as did many in the town of Ashburn, Georgia, this past Spring, forbid their children from attending an integrated prom when one is finally made available. The real problem is people who still haven't caught on that Black people, AKA African Americans, by and large don't wish to be called coloreds, negroes, or darkies, terms I have actually heard used by real, live people in my own personal life, many of whom I didn't think were racist or ignorant but who nonetheless busted out with statements like, "I didn't know they let the coloreds have jobs like that." One person actually used the term niggras, which was a new one on me. I wasn't even sure "niggras" was a word commonly used today until I Googled it and found a bunch of message boards about "monkeys killing monkeys."

If nothing else, at least the use of the phrase "nappy headed ho's" shows Imus isn't three to ten decades behind in his racial epithets.

One could also make the argument the real problem is people who will stand around a bonfire and relay the "nigger jokes" they just got off the Internet, something I was treated to a few months ago when I ventured into one of our "red" states. And certainly the real problem is white students who will hang a noose from a schoolyard tree to let black students know they aren't welcome to sit beneath it. And even more real a problem is the sort of things that happened after such a noose was hung in Jena, Louisiana, in August of last year, and continue to happen there and in places like it. (I invite the reader, if he or she doesn't know this proud moment in our all too recent history, to Google "Jena" and learn all about the use of nooses and racist district attorneys in the new millennium.)

The real problem is America is still awash in racism, both overt and covert. How many people have heard or made the comment themselves that if Barack Obama is elected president, he will almost certainly be assassinated? How many people watched some of our intrepid lawmakers make complete asses of themselves recently during the so-called "hip-hop hearings" on Capital Hill? And lest someone think this is just a white/black thing, who hasn't participated in a discussion on illegal immigration that turned into a self-righteous insistence English be made the official language of the US to prevent the Mexicans from taking over? And who hasn't heard someone say we should just "nuke all those sand niggers" over in Iran and Iraq and Palestine and wherever else those "camel jockeys" hang out?

Sure, America has come a long ways towards exorcising our legacy of slavery, internment, coolie laborers, and Indian massacres, and the big political correctness push of the '80s and '90s, followed by its inevitable backlash, has made most of us aware the words I've used in the previous paragraphs are likely to offend. And there are plenty of younger folks of color for whom these words have lost their offensive sting, and plenty of younger white folks who are oblivious to the kind of fear and loathing that imbued these words with their sting in the first place. I don't take issue with those people. It's all the other people running around saying and doing racist things, who know full well what they're doing is racist, even if, as is the case with some of my rural-dwelling friends in the Northern states, their racism stems from sheer ignorance, since many of them haven't ever had a conversation with a person of color.

If I, as someone who makes it fairly well known I do not ascribe to racism and racist causes, and who doesn't exactly hang out with the David Dukes of this world, regularly encounter the kind of racism mentioned above, and if events like those in Jena, Louisiana, and Ashburn, Georgia, are still happening, then the truth is we do have a racism problem in this country. People who think otherwise should go ahead and Google "niggras" and "monkeys" and see what lovely insights await them. And don't think just because you live somewhere other than Alabama or Mississippi or one of our nation's big cities, you have a pass to sit around a bonfire telling "nigger jokes" and it's not going to cause no one no harm.

Something else the existence of segregated proms in 2007 says is we have so-called liberal activist judges for a reason. Without people in authority who have the character to interpret the laws of this great land in a way upholding its principles, the aforementioned backwards, racist hicks would still be beating 14-year-old young black men to death and throwing them in rivers with cotton gin fans tied to their necks for whistling at white girls (for Google purposes, try "Emmett Till"). Now, I realize Alabama finally voted to allow interracial marriages a few years ago (November, 2000), but let's not forget when the votes were cast, over 40 percent of the good folks of Sweet Home were still against the idea. (It should come as no surprise these people recently put a law on the books prohibiting gay marriage—for them, bigotry is the first family value.)

Finally, what prom-gate says to me is the US has a long way to go before we're in any position of moral authority to tell the rest of the world how to govern themselves. I submit we should place an emphasis on getting our own house in order and leading by example. Let us truly return to the task of creating a "City on a Hill." Our country has been called a great experiment in democracy, and democracy has been called our greatest export, but we are failing to cultivate a vibrant and viable democracy here at home. Racists will point to the incarceration rates of African Americans and other such statistics as evidence their racist views are justified, rather than seeing them as evidence there are still real barriers to equality in this country, barriers which racists, themselves, personify.

In the end, whatever outrage I may have felt about segregated proms in Georgia ties back into the many other issues I might have wanted to avoid. The subject of race in this country is inextricably bound to the subjects of class, education, politics, liberal vs. conservative ideology, and yes, the war on terror. A representative democracy is a cumbersome, messy affair. Our founding fathers had the wisdom to know if it's done right, it's done with extra cumbersomeness and messiness to prevent any one faction, party, ideology, race, branch of government, or individual from being too "effective" and therefore hosing things up for the rest of us. But just because we can never get it "right" doesn't mean we can afford to neglect the effort to do just that. Pride in one's country isn't best evidenced by blind allegiance. It's best evidenced by constant scrutiny, humility, and investment in the effort to leave things for our children a little better than they were left to us. Can our generation say "Mission Accomplished" on that front?