Saturday, May 18, 2013

Movies and Memories of Our Racist Past

© Charles D. Hayes

In 2011, Stephanie Coontz published A Strange Stirring, a book about the status of women at the dawn of the 1960s. Even though I lived through those times as an adult, the memories Coontz brought to mind were shocking. Fifty years since that era, gender inequality still exists, especially when it comes to employment compensation, but the fact that today many of the cultural assumptions of the ’60s seem far afield is a sign of genuine progress.

          Now comes the movie 42 about the life of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American baseball player to break into the major leagues. When I try to make sense of my reaction to the film, the feelings it evokes are much deeper and much more appalling than those I felt reading Coontz. Although I was very young in the 1940s, I lived through those times, too, and I have vivid memories of the racism that reigned uncensored in our society.

          I grew up in a racist region of the country, in a racist community and, I'm ashamed to say, in a racist family. Racism in those days might as well have been in our drinking water. Assumptions of white superiority were simply taken as gospel truth. Children parroted the same bigoted notions in public as those spouted from the mouths of their ill-educated parents. In hindsight, I can see that our mind-set amounted to a common form of malignant arrogance that grows by feeding on itself as it binds one group together against another.

          The dialog in 42 brought to memory old conversations that, if heard today, would be considered astounding, even, I suspect, in the Deep South. Watching actor Chadwick Boseman portraying Jackie Robinson at bat, trying to concentrate while a white baseball manager shouts racial epithets, makes you want to crawl under your seat, only because you can't get your hands on the offender.

          The one thing that troubles me about the film, which I thought was very well acted, is my suspicion that young people accustomed to speedy media solutions will come away with the impression that acceptance of Robinson into the white world of sports was something that occurred rather quickly, perhaps after just a few winning games. The truth, however, was far different. Another couple of decades of overt racial hostility would follow before the Civil Rights era even began to take hold.

          What 42 makes crystal clear is how shallow and superficial the strain of contempt is that enables and sustains racism as prejudice is handed down from one generation to the next. The process is born of fear, misunderstanding, hearsay, innuendo, inarticulate chit-chat, frustrated exasperation, and just plain old stupidity. Unsupported nonsense derived from stereotypes passes from one person to another, while the veracity of what is said is waived by the power of the relationship. In other words, if one's friend or family member said it, then it must be true, and it will be defended by virtue of group loyalty, even if it has no validity.

          As I watched 42, it occurred to me that the whole ethos of identity politics depends upon half-truths spoken under stress and because of the existential angst that comes with the human condition. It's really that simple. When identity is the most important theme at hand, nothing holds it together quite as well as old-fashioned belligerence expressed through inarticulate gestures of discrimination aimed at gaining support for one group at the expense of another.

          Stupidity is a bonding element, and outright hatred is the greatest unifier of all. Thus, whatever we bring together in communal disinformation must be defended with much larger doses of deceit because nothing short of outright lies will make sense. Watch 42, listen to the white baseball manager's racial rant, and you will see what I mean.

          The lesson to be learned from collective stupidity is how to spot it, how to arrest its propagation by taking a time-out as in sports, and how to maintain an intellectual default toward demanding more information. Classic examples of popular ignorance as a bonding substance are the millions of emails sent daily with the intent of binding one's group by alienating another. The remedy here is simple. When you receive one of these malicious messages, ask the sender to stop.

          The identity of the other changes over time, but the methods remain the same. The only variable is the degree of vitriol. The same strain of identity culture that in one era is focused on racial hatred is a versatile social conduit that can be utilized for homophobia, anti-immigration, gun rights, the facile notion of imaginary superiority purported by Ayn Rand's John Galt wannabes, or any sort of distinctiveness revered by one's identity group.

          The point is simple and yet profound: As long as large groups of Americans rely on their sense of identity to further their political interests, no one need bother with factual matters because they simply aren't counted.

          In Moneyball, another baseball movie, Brad Pitt, playing team manager Billy Beane, describes the game to his players saying, "It's a process, it's a process." Indeed it is, and so is the furtherance of popular culture: it's a process, especially the way we pass it on. If we can shut down the anti-intellectual aspect of the process that’s based solely on who we think we are and choose to stop demonizing others, we can begin to live as if reality matters more than identity. Once that happens, then there is a possibility for achieving a livable democracy. If not, I fear the chance is lost.

          Unless people can recognize their tendency to demonize those who seem other and are willing to correct the behavior, they can watch a movie like 42, sympathize with Jackie Robinson, and go right back the next day to spewing racial hatred in a milder form so as to keep their identity intact. In a few days, the whole lesson will be forgotten. This is why it takes generations to change what should actually happen in the time it takes for a television commercial to play. Progress will come only when honesty can trump identity. 
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