Racial Intolerance, Historical Stereotypes and Paranoia on the Rerun
While many Americans of all races celebrated the election of our first Black president, there were others who did not. These are the men and women who have been seething in resentment and rage at the fact that a person of non-Eurocentric origin is occupying the most powerful political office in the world. Such hostility is evident. According to the latest statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 926 hate groups were active in the United States. This was a 4 percent increase over 2007. Moreover, it is a 50 percent increase since 2000. Examples of such intolerance range from anti-Obama rallies where so-called “true and proud” Americans have shouted hate-filled comments such as “kill the nigger” to anti-Obama rallies where supposedly Christian men and women have screamed at the top of their lungs holding posters with language stating “Obama is a socialist” or “Obama is the anti-Christ.” The hatred has been searing. More important, they are often rooted in long-held historical stereotypes.
While a number of social and cultural issues have been at the forefront of American debate, the fact is that Americans have always had a preoccupation and fascination with race — from the days of slavery to the practice of social Darwinism in the late 1890s to popular authors that era like Rudyard Kipling and Madison Grant who argued of the superiority of Whites and the inferiority of non-Whites. The nation witnessed a dramatic racial spectacle when the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s busted the seams of a largely, rigid, segregated American society. The fact is that all ethnic groups have had stereotypes ascribed to them. White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs ) have been seen as stuffy and pretentious, Hispanics and Italians as hot tempered, Asians as aloof and bookish, Blacks as childlike and oversexed, Jews as neurotic and shrewd. Of course, many people are aware that these are historical stereotypes and nothing more, but many others, even today in the 21st century, subscribe to such deeply held retrograde notions.
The often insulated world of the academy has not been immune from such myopic intolerance. Despite the fact that academia has long been known as a haven of racial inclusion and tolerance (to a degree this is true, although much of it has been rhetorical trendiness and faux liberalism as opposed to radical, genuine progressive behavior), the specter of racism has been prevalent. This has particularly been the case over the past decade. In the 1990s, books by authors such as Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza caused much controversy for their supposed assumptions on intellectual, racial and cultural differences.
Some academics from respected institutions have argued that Whites have superior brains for their body size, that lower Black and Hispanic intelligence is the cause of higher crime rates in these communities, that integrated schools demand an “academically deficient curriculum” that frustrates White students and so on. The fact is that most legitimate research has demonstrated that crucial environmental factors – love, discipline, stability, motivation — are often the decisive factors that determine how well most individuals perform. Race is irrelevant.
Without question, there are millions more Barack Obamas, Cornel Wests, Hillary Clintons and Toni Morrisons languishing about, and their predicament has nothing to due with their racial orientation. Lack of economic opportunity, low morale, mediocre teachers, out-of-date textbooks and other factors are the problems. This is where these academics and other so-called “experts” need to focus their criticisms as opposed to engaging in inaccurate, paranoid falsehoods arguing racial dysfunction.
Racial paranoia and stereotypes, whether it be promoted by politicians, private citizens, academics or others, must be challenged aggressively. The lessons of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and others should remind us of what such potentially ominous rhetoric can lead to. Our increasingly diverse, pluralistic nation can ill afford such polarizing discourse.
Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).