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Fifty Years after the August 28, 1963, March on Washington

By       Message Walter Uhler     Permalink
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Precisely because so many northern business leaders (and tourists) refused to expand their businesses (or their travel) into the South, due to white racial violence, "in city after city civil rights leaders learned quickly that the weak spot in Jim Crow's armor could usually be found in the vicinity of his pocketbook. " [Cobb, p. 101]

Thus, thanks to the civil rights movement and, secondarily, to decisions by moderate southern white businessmen to subordinate their racial biases to their economic well-being, the worst excesses of overt white racial violence and racist rhetoric have diminished significantly over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, racism has not gone away. It has become less overt and most of it is known as symbolic racism.

According to Professors Nicholas A. Valentino and David O. Sears -- in their article, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and the Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South (American Journal of Political Science Vol. 49, No. 3, July 2005) -- symbolic racism consists of four complementary beliefs: (1) Blacks no longer suffer from racial discrimination, (2) their continuing disadvantage is due to a lack of a work ethic, (3) blacks make excessive demands and (4) receive too many undeserved advantages. [p. 674]

As I've written elsewhere, "people who believe that discrimination is no longer an obstacle for blacks are obviously symbolic racists, because they rely on their own sentiments about blacks, rather than "numerous audit studies [that] have documented the persistence of antiblack discrimination in markets for real estate, credit, jobs, goods, and services.' [Douglas S. Massey, "The Past & Future of American Civil Rights," Daedalus, Spring 2011, p. 49])"

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Nevertheless, Lee Atwater famously revealed how Republicans manipulate these prejudices: "You start out in 1954 by saying "n-word, n-word, n-word.' By 1968 you can't say "n-word' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites." [Bob Herbert, "Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant," New York Times, Oct. 6, 2005]

But, with the election of President Barack Obama, white Republicans began to fear that these "abstract" issues might be turned against them, in order to undermine long-standing white privilege. Thus they formed the Tea Party and became symbolic racists in staggering numbers. (See http://www.walter-c-uhler.com/?p=666 )

Today The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Richard Como, the superintendent of the Coatesville Area School District and Jim Donato, its athletic director, were forced to resign after it became known that they had exchanged lewd, sexist and racist text messages about staff and students on school-issued cellphones. The texts were "rife with the "n-word.'"

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My own interactions with white Americans, as a white American, tell me that the covert racism uncovered in Coatesville -- the racism "shared" among friends and family members, but never expressed in public -- still fills the hateful hearts of some 50 percent of our white population, notwithstanding the March on Washington and the diminution of overt racism in America.

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)

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