Sunday, March 3, 2019

Racism Resurgence: Neeson and Northam

Agnes Moorehead on "The Wild Wild West"
(I couldn't find a picture of her on "The Lone Ranger")
When I was a kid, I remember watching a rerun of The Lone Ranger TV series with Agnes Moorehead guest-starring as a ranch owner who hated all Indians because her family had been massacred by an Apache war party. After saving Tonto from Agnes' wrath, the Lone Ranger set her straight about her hatred. I said to my mother, "I don't understand. I would feel the same way as Agnes Moorehead if my family had been killed by Indians. I'd hate all of them." My mother explained that you shouldn't judge an entire race of people by the actions of some, even if it those actions hurt you very badly. I was only about 10 at the time, but the lesson stuck with me.

Liam Neeson
I thought about that Lone Ranger show when Liam Neeson revealed his past racist urges during an interview for his new movie--ironically another in a series of action revenge flicks. With breathtaking honesty, Neeson pulled back the mask on his own hatred and told of the time when he was a young man (way older than 10) and wanted to find any black man and kill him after a friend of his was raped by someone of that race. He says he does not feel that way now and his aim was to expose these heinous feelings, and show that we can move beyond them. But we have to confront and acknowledge them first. A firestorm followed with many critics calling for boycott of Neeson's movies. Is Neeson a fool, a brave man, a bigot, a reformed bigot or some combination of all of the above? Should he be forgiven for his youthful hatred now that he is open about it?

The same can be asked about Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, who may or may not be in the picture of a person in blackface standing next to another student dressed in a KKK robe on his page in his college yearbook. His case is a bit different because he screwed up in his confession. First he said it was him in that picture, then a few days later, he retracted and said "Ooops, my mistake, I am neither the guy in blackface nor the one in KKK hood. Sorry. But it's still awful, blackface is wrong. Let's move on." We still don't know for certain if it's really him, but calls for his resignation were swift and loud. The screaming has died down a bit and he's still in place, though his wife didn't help matters any when she gave out samples of cotton to African-American children on a school visit (evidently she was giving a history lesson on slavery.) If Northam had
Virginia Govenor Ralph Northam and his wife
admitted it was him in the offending photo (and it's highly unlikely it was someone else) and said "Yes, that me. It was a stupid thing to do. I know better now. I will learn from this mistake," then he would have a legitimate case for his growth as a non-racist--and he did admit to wearing blackface to enter a Michael Jackson dance contest. So should he resign?

But the main theme here is racism has reared its ugly head a lot ever since Trump was elected. His dog-whistle calls to his base and embrace of far-right nationalism have emboldened formerly fringe elements to push their way into the mainstream. A newspaper editor in Alabama wrote an editorial calling for the KKK to lynch liberal in DC (even if he was speaking metaphorically, it's still a horrifying thought.) He has since been fired and replaced by an African-American woman. On a recent visit to Houston, Texas, our hosts informed us that the Klan was active in a nearby small town. It's no longer socially unacceptable to be racist in America. When Obama was elected, I remember friends at dinner and pundits on TV actually saying "See, there is no more racism. We are in a post-racist world. Now, let's join hands and sing 'Kumbaya." At the time, I thought, "What fantasy land are you living in?" Turns out I was right. The racism didn't go away, it just stay buried for eight years.

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