|Library exhibit, Vanderbilt University|
But it is a detriment as well, in that you can only say so much. For instance, in yesterday's post about Simone de Beauvoir's views on race in the United States, I really could only introduce her, talk about her visit to Harlem which I found so illuminating, then wrap it up. Time to move on.
But thankfully, a number of readers stuck their feet in the door before I could close it. I wanted to stride off to a new topic, but they yanked me back. Joe Schiele, of Ravenswood, struck the archetypical tone—and truly, each is almost identical ("They don't have to conspire," as Gay Talese once said of the rich, "because they all think alike"):
I can't leave Mr. Schiele dangling in uncertainty, and Beauvoir addresses this very point, at a length that I could only allude to in the paper.
But here, online, we can let her build her argument to help illuminate Mr. Schiele. And though it will certainly be lost on him, we can still benefit:
"The black problem,' Beauvoir writes, "is first of all a white problem. To understand it, you must start there. It was whites who brought black slaves to America (around four hundred thousand of them in 1802, when the slave trade was legal and nearly as many—illegally—between 1808 and 1860). It was whites who fought each other to decide whether to maintain or abolish slavery. Today, there are thirteen million blacks, but they possess only a tiny portion of the country's economic wealth, and they have almost no political influence. It is whites who assign them their place: their way of life is a secondary reaction to the situation created by the white majority."
Of course she wrote this in 1947, and things have changed. Now there are 40 million African Americans, and a black president, but otherwise what she said about wealth and political power hold true. There has been a struggle for Civil Rights and things are different. But they are not—as Mr. Schiele's comments reflect—really that different, and in some ways they are worse, as it is easy for people such as my complaining readers to dismiss the current situation of African Americans are entirely their fault.
Even though, as Beauvoir continues:
"No one claims that their conditions or opportunities are equal to those of whites..."
Inferior schools, lack of capital, lack of access to jobs, uneven law enforcement, judicial system stacked against them, all of these are shrugged off—how else otherwise could we see a return to voting restrictions? Not quite the cynical poll taxes and "grandfather clauses" which Beauvoir details, but close enough. None of this keeps my readers such as Mr. Schiele from mockingly washing their hands. That too is part of a long tradition.
"But many racists, ignoring the rigors of science, insist on declaring that even if the physiological reasons haven't been established, that fact is that blacks are inferior to whites"—the term Schiele uses is "de-volved"—"You only have to travel through America to be convinced of it. But what does the verb 'to be' mean? Does it define an immutable substance, like oxygen? Or does it describe a moment in a situaton that has evolved, like every human situation? The best answer to this accusation was provided by Jefferson, speaking of white Americans, who had been put down by Old World Europeans for lacking a historical past or any constructive force, for not having produced any outstanding figures in the arts or sciences. "We have not yet had our opportunities," he essentially said. "First let us exist; then we can be asked to prove ourselves."
That in essence is my view of the situation of blacks today. Not enough time has passed since the enormous wrongs visited upon them. The little change we've managed, at enormous effect, makes us fancy that much has changed, and it hasn't.
She goes on, but my newspaper training tells me it is time to draw to a close. You really should read the book. But a final thought, addressing my reader's sneer at crime in black areas—all of which I have spent time in, with no ill effect, doing my job. (And yes, brought my wife and kids, after dark, to no ill effect).
"Their crime rate is a little higher than that of whites in part because they are treated with unequal severity, in part because their poverty allows them neither legal nor illegal defense against the arbitrariness of the police, and in part because they almost all have a wretched standard of living and a social status that makes them view the white legal system as merely a detested constraint," Beauvoir writes. "Finally, if in the big cities so many blacks are found in the lower depths of society, it's because there are so few economic outlets open to them that they're forced to live by their wits. The faults and defects attributed to blacks really are created by the terrible handicaps of segregation and discrimination; they are the effect and not the cause of the white attitude toward black people."
"They are the effect and not the cause of the white attitude toward black people." If that, if the entire final paragraph, is not as true today as it was in 1947 well, then maybe Mr. Schiele or one of his identical soulmates can write a second time and explain to me why it isn't.
Photo atop blog: Vanderbilt Library, Nashville, Tennessee.