In our faltering efforts to deal with race in this country, a great deal of time is devoted to responding to symptoms rather than root causes. That may help explain why racism keeps repeating itself.
Exhibit One is the recurring cases of racism at colleges.
In February 2013, Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was suspended by Washington University in St. Louis after the fraternity’s pledges were accused of singing racial slurs to African American students.
Last November, the University of Connecticut suspended Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity after a confrontation with members of the historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in which AKAs were called racially and sexually charged epithets.
This year in March, a University of Maryland student resigned from Kappa Sigma fraternity after being suspended for sending an e-mail containing racially and sexually suggestive language about African American, Indian and Asian women.
Also this year, disciplinary action was taken against members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma who participated in a racist chant, caught on video, about lynching African Americans.
We have not seen the end of racist fraternity and sorority actions on college campuses.
That’s because the actions taken in response to these incidents by well-meaning universities were directed at symptoms. Epithets, chants and derogatory language about African Americans are indicators of an underlying problem within the offending white students, namely an antagonism against blacks based upon feelings of white superiority. With suspensions and expulsions, the college community rids itself of a particular manifestation but not the underlying problem, which is racial prejudice.
The United States has been treating evidence of racism, and not the causes, since the Civil War.
Slavery; “separate but equal”; segregated pools, buses, trains and water fountains; workplace and housing discrimination; and other forms of bias and animus have served as painful barometers of the nation’s racial health. They have been, however, treated like the pain that accompanies a broken leg. The effort was to treat or reduce the agonizing symptoms of the break rather than fix it.
The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution extended civil and legal protections to former slaves. They eased the pain, but the leg was still broken.
Anti-lynching laws scattered the lynch mobs. But the pain flared up again with beatings, bombings and assassinations.
Our nation responded to racial anguish with a variety of measures: the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and numerous rules and regulations to address those things that caused generations of African Americans — when the shades were drawn — to groan, weep, grit their teeth and swear that their children would not experience the demeaning, disrespectful and immoral treatment that they had to endure.
However, these legal remedies, while addressing the excruciating racial pain, didn’t deal with the enduring problem: the racism itself that caused the South to secede from the Union; that led state legislatures and governors to birth Jim Crow laws; that sparked the KKK’s reign of terror; and that encouraged school districts and town zoning officials to institutionalize barriers against black citizens in housing, education and employment. And racism is still at it in the 21st century. All you have to do is look at those frat boys cited above to see that it’s going strong.
Witness, too, the enactment of laws passed since President Obama’s 2008 election to make it harder for African Americans to vote.
And then there is Dylann Roof, the alleged Charleston, S.C., assassin who takes his place among storied anti-black murderers such as James Earl Ray, who killed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the Klansmen who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four little black girls; and Samuel H. Bowers Jr., the imperial wizard of the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who with his KKK brethren murdered three civil rights workers.
Oh, yes, Roof has plenty of company; not necessarily in his homicidal rage but in his ideology. The manifesto that he purportedly wrote is replete with bigoted remarks common to right-wing talk radio and posted on Web sites.
Dylann Roof is this week’s manifestation of our racial sickness. But Roof and his ideological forbear President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States of America and those Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers are symptoms of the same problem. Until we get at the root cause, the problem lives on.
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