MAXWELL:  Racism lingers in the shadows of our denials

1/30/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Finally, the folks who take care of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Virginia, have relented to the urgent call of DNA and have all but acknowledged that the nation’s third president probably fathered at least one _ perhaps all six _ of the children of Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves.

The affair does not bother me. My concern is the matter of denial. For more than 200 years, Jefferson’s white relatives and others have tried to bury strong evidence that the president had carnal knowledge of a black concubine. The very idea was so repugnant that the keepers of Jefferson’s legacy went into deep denial. And many have remained there and may never emerge.

In psychology, this phenomenon is called a defense mechanism, the process of repression by which an unacceptable idea is made unconscious. Again, in this case, Jefferson’s defenders denied an obvious reality that was too painful.

Such denials _ and the American psyche suffers from many _ contribute to many of the nation’s enduring social and race problems.

In a now-infamous editorial, the Florida Times-Union of Jacksonville, in an attempt to support Gov. Jeb Bush’s initiative to end affirmative action in the state, blithely commented that slavery “existed briefly in America” and that “slavery is not unique and its effects are not permanent.”

Denying the profound, residual effects of slavery may seem fitting for the Times-Union, which has an unfortunate reputation for being insensitive to African-Americans. But such denial prevents the editors and writers from seeing the truth, guaranteeing that the paper will continue to have poor relations with an entire segment of Jacksonville’s population.

Another symbol of gross denial flies atop South Carolina’s Statehouse. Many South Carolinians still refuse to acknowledge that the Confederate flag stands for all that was wrong in the South, that the banner was raised to protest federal civil rights legislation of the 1960s that gave blacks rights that white Americans took for granted.

Many South Carolinians, moreover, cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that Dixie fought the North to preserve the evil institution of slavery. As long as the Rebel banner flies in Columbia and people continue to deny the crippling effects of slavery, South Carolina will never begin to heal its racial wounds.

In a recent column, Miami Herald editorial board member Kathleen Krog wrote about the worldwide propensity for inhumanity as we enter the 21st century. Drawing parallels between the Holocaust, U.S. slavery and other international atrocities, she urged people to acknowledge the wrongs and not to forget them.

“In a sense, the Holocaust is like American slavery,” she wrote. “It’s the ugliness in our past that just won’t go away. Slavery’s after-effects still inflict such profound damage _ as fresh as the latest class-action discrimination lawsuit _ that’s it’s obvious why this example of man’s inhumanity to man won’t fade from our cultural consciousness. It remains a deep lode _ as much as an unhealed wound _ for historians, sociologists, educators, civil-rights activists, clerics, writers, filmmakers, journalists and others with truth and revelations on their minds.”

More than half of the white readers who correspond with me accuse me of being a racist because I dare to discuss and acknowledge the continuing effects of race in contemporary life. “You’re what’s wrong with America,” a typical letter commented. “If you and those other race pimp niggers would stop talking about race, we wouldn’t have any problems. My grandfather didn’t own slaves, and we’re sick and tired of hearing about slavery. You weren’t a slave so what are you whining about?”

What we do about this kind of troubling denial, I do not know. I do not have the answer. I used to think that education was the answer. Today, however, I am not so sure. Tens of thousands of books, articles and videos are available that document the horrors we have committed. Public schools and colleges offer courses in ethnicity and diversity, U.S. and world history, the Holocaust, the Civil War. Yet the denials endure.

In a real sense, denying is another way of forgetting. And we should never forget. Krog commends the nations and organizations that have established war-crime tribunals and reconciliation committees that confront the horrors of the past.

While lauding efforts to hunt down criminals and punish them in some instances and forgive them in others, she warns that we fail if we merely remember and acknowledge without taking preventive action: “It is good that we remember and now are more willing to confront our pasts. But knowing and remembering are not enough to protect us from the inhumane instincts that the Holocaust and other heinous atrocities prove exist in every single one of us.”

America and the rest of the world will become safe for everyone when we stop denying, when, as Krog says, we resolve “never again, anywhere, and find an effective means to turn those words into action.” Acknowledgement is the first step.