Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We shall overcome and find really lame examples of not doing so

There are two things I believe about the state of civil rights in America. Number one, we still have a way to go towards racial equality, even if the guy flying in Air Force is African American.

And number two, the examples given--and offered in complete seriousness--of how we have not yet achieved complete racial equality are often a bit silly.

No, these are not contradictory statements. This occurred to me as I read Michael Klarman's recent book Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History. First a comment on the volume: it's fine if you are looking for a quick overview of the subject. Were I to teach a class of high school seniors or college freshmen on civil rights in America, knowing how short an attention span teenagers have, this is probably the book I'd use as a text. But if you're really interested in the topic, far better and more thorough is Klarman's 2004 book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality, or We Shall Overcome: A History of Civil Rights and the Law by Alexander Tsesis, published just last year.

Anyway, in Unfinished Business, Professor Klarman concisely summarizes the racial situation in this country from the founding to the present. Mostly he considers the African-American experience, although to his credit he does not neglect to discuss the appalling treatment of Asians in California from the nineteenth century through World War II.

Towards the book's conclusion, Klarman brings up areas where we still have inequalities. In the first several pages of the chapter entitled "To the Present," he looks at Hurricane Katrina and the havoc it raged on poor black communities in New Orleans. That's a perfectly reasonable point to raise, even if he mentions President Bush's response to the disaster only briefly and Mayor Nagin's response not at all. But then Klarman jumps into an ill advised look at American society as a whole, making this groan inducing comment on page 200:

"Magazine readership is... stunningly segregated: in a typical month, half of all blacks read Ebony, while fewer than one in every hundred whites does so."

Well not too many fifty year old women read Seventeen either. Perez Hilton and Elton John probably don't read Playboy, or if they do, they're actually telling the truth when they say they read it for the articles. Go into a old folk's home and you probably won't find many copies of Rolling Stone lying around. Anybody see any of that as a problem?

By the way, take a look at what Ebony says on their own website:

"Our goals is to provide a unique and engaging forum to explore the impact of the world on African Americans and the impact of African Americans on the world."

That's for the online edition, of course, but the print edition is similarly focused. I wish, by the way, that somebody there had focused on noticing that it should have been "our goal" not "our goals." The point is, if you produce a magazine and specifically say your target audience is African American, you're going to get mostly African American readers. That's just fine; the notion of few people of European descent reading Ebony as being a sign that segregation is alive and well in America is a bit of a reach. Besides, if they just put a caption on the front cover stating "Inside: pictures of Beyonce' in a bikini" they'll get plenty of white guys checking it out. Except Perez Hilton and Elton John.

Right before making the Ebony remark, Klarman notes that in 1996-97 there was only one television program in the top twenty among both white and black viewers--Monday Night Football. Uh oh, I thought, he's going to bring up the racial composition of NFL teams.

He did. From page 201:

"On its surface, the National Football League seems very well integrated: two-thirds of the players are black, and one-third is white. Yet in 1995, blacks were just 9 percent of professional quarterbacks, while they were 90 percent of running backs and wide receivers, and 100 percent of defensive cornerbacks. Whites are represented disproportionately on the offensive line, where intelligence is prized, and blacks on the defensive line, where greater emphasis is placed on athleticism."

Yeah, plus most punters were white and a large percentage of players with surnames ending in a vowel were placekickers. I really don't have a clue what point Klarman is trying to make with this. We'd be better off if instead of all the cornerbacks being black there was the same two-thirds black, one-third white ratio as on the roster as a whole? All I want from the Atlanta Falcons cornerbacks is to keep the receivers on the other team from making catches. As for the bit about intelligence on the offensive line and athleticism on the defensive line, I confess I've never thought about it in those terms. Instead, I think the defensive linemen are supposed to slam their bodies into the quarterback and the offensive linemen are supposed to stop them from doing it. Since both acts are quite painful, I don't think either side is behaving particularly intelligently.

Just last weekend, University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford was the first player taken in the NFL draft. He's going to Detroit. As such, he'll be in the city that arguably shows how far we still have to go in the USA to make the American dream accessible to everyone. Hopefully he'll spend his free time visiting Detroit's communities and trying to make it a better place, which frankly might be a bit easier than making the Lions a better team. When we all do whatever we can to show our concern for those who don't have the best opportunities available to them, we help to make the world just a little bit better.

That matters a whole lot more than whether we read Ebony or not.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

Segregation is separation, and the races are still mostly separated even in places where some measure of equality has been achieved. (The military is the great exception here.)

When I was young, I used to think segregation wasn't the real problem, discrimination was. Now I think that segregation is the more fundamental evil; it gives people the emotional underpinning needed for discrimination. One reason I choose to live in New York City is to bring up my brown-skinned daughter in a place where nobody much cares that her parents are pinkskins.