ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
"Blacks are really bringing us down!" I've heard in private settings before. "Every black girl you see has four or five kids. They suck up welfare, and they don't work at all if they can help it." These are all typical complaints that surface time and time again among certain groups of whites in New Orleans and elsewhere. David Duke was quick to try to cash in on some of this sentiment while in the State House by proposing to give welfare mothers financial incentives - $100 or so per year - for cooperating in a certain "family planning" program which would require them to elect to wear a contraceptive skin-implant called a "Norplant device." Somewhere in the legislative process, the part of the bill about giving cash incentives to the participants got taken out and, like all of Duke's dozens of other proposals, it got lost in the bureaucracy forever. That's not to say that they weren't good for something - at least they served to show that the cumbersome, prehistoric dealings of the Louisiana State Legislature finally accomplished some good worth talking about! (After a couple hundred years of getting nowhere, some of us had real doubts as to whether it would ever be effective in anything except feeding political jamborees.)
Another wide-spread generalization made by whites, especially in New Orleans, about blacks is that they're all stupid. An extremely high illiteracy rate among poor blacks in New Orleans may account for this way of thinking. Education has never been as available to blacks there as whites, and the poorer quality of secondary education there has left many to face the world after high school without the benefit of being able to read. For a long time, illiteracy was equated with stupidity. It may still be for a lot of people there. In any event, it finally grew into an issue of concern in the 1980s. But the term illiteracy came to stand for other forms of ignorance as well, not just the inability to read written language (educators now also speak of being "computer illiterate," for example). To the long list of illiteracies which we all seem to be the most concerned about now we should add cultural illiteracy. There are just too many of us who are not in touch with the other cultures present in the American way of life (that is, those cultures other than the white middle-class existence which has always been traditionally associated with the great American way of life). With the exceptions of a few breakthroughs in recent history, mainstream white America has never been truly familiar with black America or Hispanic America, Jewish America or otherwise-minority America. Whites in the U.S. have accepted the influence of black and other minority cultures only to a certain degree before taking whatever influence there may be from the minorities and adopting it to white tastes and styles, bastardizing such other influences in the greater American culture, in effect, to synthesize them into the white standard which has come to dominate all aspects of the country in past decades.
The most famous example of this, of course, is Rock & Roll music, something which whites created by capitalizing on black Rhythm and Blues music (a very precious and unique form of American folk art). Here, I suppose it would be appropriate for me to cite the only true contribution of any value to American culture whose origins are found in the intellectual and cultural vacuum of New Orleans: Jazz. New Orleans' impotence at being able to assert itself on a national level has inadvertently served to rightly preserve Jazz in a fairly pristine state. It was cloistered for so long within the largely ignored circles of New Orleans' black culture before the turn of the 20th century, that it was protected and insulated from being capitalized on to the point of gross deformation after its emergence as a popular music form in the rest of America and the world. For this reason, Jazz is the same uniquely American form of artistic expression that was heard being played in dingy little French Quarter joints as far back as the mid-1800s.
It's a shame how this cultural illiteracy has had such a profoundly ugly influence on certain members of our society, notably those like David Duke. There are things about black Americans that white Americans do not know, or that white Americans only think they know and truly don't. And there are those things about a lot of American whites that American blacks are ignorant of and that, like the whites, they do not make any effort to clearly understand due to predispositioning and prejudice (according to that word's original Latin meaning). The ignorance founded on cultural illiteracy is deeply rooted and self-perpetuating. Cultural sharing and sampling is discouraged by the old guard among whites and minorities alike; only the bad old days and what they meant are remembered and acted upon. David Duke may make much more out of what progress has already been made for and by minorities, and some minorities forget or don't realize just how much has really happened for them since the civil-rights movements of the 1960s. Blacks don't ride at the backs of busses any longer - now they serve as senators, governors and supreme-court justices. Some blacks don't think that's enough, and David Duke's kind think that it's too much! They all think that because none among them has the slightest idea of what any one of the others is about. Well, David Duke might have had some idea, but he would have been damned if he were ever to let the little folks who supported him catch on to it. He would just tell them what they thought they wanted to hear. He would have been the first to suggest that cultural change and progress is really social degeneration, and they would have believed him. They would and still do believe that all their white daughters will somehow get duped into marrying silver-tongued, Negro men, and that the more black city officials there are, the less efficiently the public administration will be run. They never took notice of how Atlanta's former Mayor, Andrew Young, pulled his city through economically embarrassing times. They would never be able to realize what loyal fathers and husbands successful black men can make, too. These people are the types who see only what they are told to see, because they are ignorant.
They are culturally ignorant - but so are a lot of blacks who think that every white who wears a suit is part of a secret system which exists by excluding blacks from its rewards. Unfortunately, due to types like Duke, the blacks who think that way have more evidence to support their suspicions than do the whites who still adhere to visions of stereotypical minorities. No wonder some blacks think of whites as devils who exist solely to torture them. I would not be surprised at all if some blacks (and whites) thought that way about David Duke, the Louisiana State Representative in the early 1990s who was from Metairie's 81st electoral district - 81st as in 81 which is 9 x 9. Two nines together make eighteen which can be divided three times by the number six (hence, 6 + 6 + 6). Three sixes, or . . . 666, the number of the devil as described in the New Testament. Sound stupid? It is just as stupid as relying on prejudicial wive's tales to sum up our neighbors and fellow human beings.
There may be a more hidden, underlying and much more permanently fixed cause for this cultural illiteracy in New Orleans, in America, indeed in all the West. It seems that, in nearly every Western culture, there is an inferred, de facto caste system which is based on the richness of a person's skin color. Citing differences perceived in Louisiana between full African-Americans and Creole persons of color, there is an old way of determining just who is a full Negro and who is a "High Yellow" Creole - it's called the "paper-bag test," and it involves simply holding an ordinary, brown paper bag next to one's skin to see if one is darker or lighter than the paper. The darker you are, the lower your social station in life. The saddest thing about this practice is that it was originated by persons of color to measure one another for some unknown reason.
This sorry attitude towards the importance of skin complexion exists even among the Hispanic cultures of the Caribbean and Latin America. The most tragic example of this attitude among Hispanics that I have ever run into concerned a Puerto Rican friend of mine. He used to tell me about how his mother wouldn't allow him to marry his girlfriend with whom he was very much in love and who was darker complected than he was. This really tore him up, and I felt very sorry for him (still do). And he would never go against his mother's wishes because he was very Christian and he wanted to adhere to the Fifth Commandment ("Honor thy mother and thy father"). Another friend I had in New Orleans, a Nicaraguan girl, would tell me how her mother would absolutely drop dead to the floor if she ever became even platonically involved with a black man. It sounds to me like a lot of people perceive this black and white skin thing, dark and light, as being connected in some kind of Yin and Yang relationship, the two forces through whose essences, according to Taoist belief, the universe was produced and cosmic harmony is maintained (Yin is dark, female and negative; Yang is light, male and positive - both perfectly in line with contemporary Western biases). And among a lot of whites, this attitude is also like some kind of holy commandment - "Thou shalt not intermix!" Among the highly educated and layman alike, this unwritten social law is chiseled into solid rock. They will never be swayed from it, as it has just been too deeply ingrained in their psyches. This is what they are taught as youngsters, and this is what they hand down to following generations. For every Byron de la Beckwith who dies, a David Duke is born. It is a constant, self-regenerating cycle which may not be able to be broken by outside agents due to its contained, self-nurturing state. It is like an invincible virus whose protective protein capsule cannot be compromised by modern science.
This does not mean that there's positively no hope of ever being able to avoid this vicious cycle. Even with the most deadly and unyielding viruses, such as AIDS, protective measures can be taken to prevent infection. And if everyone manages to stay well away from the virus, it'll soon find that it has no hosts to carry it, and it will eventually perish. The trick here is to make sure that those who do carry the virus don't get the opportunity to infect others with it. The analogy here between tough viruses and racism is to point out that once they're bypassed in the system and left without hosts, they're both left without anything to feed on and they fizzle out in time.
So how is it done? Well, it's not done from the outside, like I said. But since it's as impossible to get inside a circle of racists as it is to penetrate a virus' shell, an avoidance measure seems to be the only real alternative. And as vaccines are introduced into healthy systems to build up protection by anti-bodies against viral infection, so must a social vaccine be introduced in a society to protect against dangerous infections like prejudice and racism. Such a social vaccine must be concocted by educating the very young about what's right and wrong, and by continuing to exercise the democratic practice of freedom of choice. Blacks and other minorities in America will never succeed at trying to wear the racist cycle down by striking at its members directly. Black film makers can spew out as many racially controversial pictures as their studios will finance; minority members can file as many discrimination suits as their attorneys are willing to pursue; and black politicians can put together as many lopsided "rainbow coalitions" as they have time for; but none of that will affect the cycle enough to ever bring it to a stop. Blacks and other minorities should seek out and embrace those whites and other majority-class members who are sympathetic to the struggle for equity and fairness. By gaining their support, the exercise of choice will be much more potent. And as more begin to join the minority causes, the more the previous inhibitions which keep others from expressing minority support will deteriorate and the numbers of those who join in will increase exponentially. So, instead of battling all whites and other majority-class members as a single entity, more and more support should be drawn from their numbers. They should be broken up because there truly is strength in numbers, and a homogenous condition, like that of a minority-dominated "rainbow coalition," is the most unstable of states to be in.
But, as this rational approach has only been seldomly employed and only by the wisest and most critically thinking persons put forth by the task (Dr. Martin Luther King in the U.S., and Mohandas Karamchand "Mahatma" Gandhi of India being the two finest examples that I can think of to date), the process of progression towards racial equality has been negligently clumsy and unfruitful. The concentration of black and other minority efforts for equality during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and '70s led to some visible progress by the 1980s, but what little progress had been made seemed to slip away under the de facto practices of conservatives during the long Republican reign initiated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, whose unyielding traditions and outdated views of the world managed to gradually eradicate nearly every visible minority advance made up until that point in time. Okay, maybe that's a bit of an over-statement. But there's no question that civil rights took quite a step back then from previous progress.
During that period in American history, that new buzzword came to light. To be politically correct ("PC" for short) was deemed the socially responsible thing to do by some of the liberal elements still managing to survive in the government and the private sector in order to counter all the staunch conservativism which was for so long the in-thing. But it seems as though the heavy pressure to get everything "PC" caused a sort of backlash from all those involved who were not to benefit directly from the policy, but who would seem to have to make all the sacrifices for it. This sort of thing is precisely what provided the perfect combustible to fuel Duke's engines. And so it seems as if the once traditionally unrecognized and non-legitimate oppositions to racial progress and equality that he stood for became traditional and legitimate enough for him to run for and to win public office. In all the struggling that's been going on by minorities to gain more representation among the majority-class ruled institutions of power, it has somehow been overlooked that a minority, by definition, is somewhat powerless and in no position to exert itself and to make demands on or to try to exhort the majority-class to put its own needs aside for those of the minority. This just doesn't ever seem to work well with any kind of animal, especially human beings. This is the reality we face. This is the world we live in. When those who are struggling for minority rights insist on being uncontructively irritating in the process, sometimes presenting only ugly or violent solutions, they often end up creating situations which are reasonably viewed as excessive. In such instances, a counter-reaction of equal or greater force from the opposite side seems justifiable. Just like the Newtonian law of physics which describes that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, there must be a sociological principle governing the same situation - except with people, the reaction is often magnified, unlike with rational, logical, unemotional objects and elemental force-vectors. So, for all those self-appointed, minority rights representatives who irrationally advocate violent means of obtaining empowerment, it must not be forgotten that blacks and other minorities in the United States compose far less than half of the country's total population - and that's according to the most liberal estimates which can be based on the U.S. Bureau of Census' statistical projections up to the year 2025. Those who foolishly advocate social violence are suggesting that those whom they think they represent follow them into a battle where they are currently outnumbered three to one by an adversary who is entirely better organized and equipped. They also forget that not everyone who is a minority-class member considers the existing conditions to be so terrible, unjust and wrong that the use of violence - even the suggestion of it - is warranted in any manner. Dr. Martin Luther King's words were too solemn to already be forgotten.
Affirmative action was intended to mesh with Martin Luther King's message. Its developers saw it as a way to fairly integrate blacks and other minorities into the system. For a while, it seemed as if it might have had a chance of working, but it soon became apparent to a lot of people that it was only serving to discriminate against whites. Ivy-League schools began fighting off law suits for discriminating against whites in favor of blacks and other minorities who had weaker credentials. This rejection of whites in favor of less-qualified minorities, something which should have been plainly labeled typical, everyday garden-variety discrimination, came to be known by a horribly twisted legal term: reverse discrimination. This verbal abomination should never have been promoted by respectable judges and lawyers who coined it. It only serves to further promote the division between whites and minorities by inferring that there exist two kinds of discrimination - a special one for the white class, and a separate one for everyone else.
On the subject of affirmative action, Duke's supporters, even his closet-supporters (of which there were a large number) would and still do judge all minorities who gain the advantage in American life through affirmative action plans as being no better nor more able than those who do not. A black Harvard grad pales in their eyes next to a white graduate from Harvard or even from a lesser-known college or university because, in the backs of their minds, the white graduate made it according to the normal (i.e. more competitive) standards. (To them, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION MINORITY + IVY LEAGUE = LESS QUALIFIED AFFIRMATIVE ACTION PRODUCT.) And then there are those minority members who, after receiving the benefits bestowed on them by affirmative-action programs, will tell you that they feel similarly as those whites do because it's as if they have "AFFIRMATIVE ACTION" stamped all over their foreheads. The principle only seems to be causing more difficulties. It also brings into question the once-upon-a-time unquestionable academic standards and institutional integrities of Ivy-League schools like Harvard - it is my opinion that the highly acclaimed selectivity involved in admitting students and hiring faculty at such institutions, one of the principal reasons why they have always been so revered, has been diluted and cheapened by adhering to affirmative-action procedures.
Concerning institutions of higher learning in the U.S., high-pressure drives to enhance curricular "PC" have also resulted in revolts of sorts among academicians. At Tulane University in 1991, the Chairman of the Political Science Department, Paul Lewis (described in a TIME magazine article in the April 1, 1991 edition as "no academic bomb thrower"), had to take a stand against what the university referred to as "initiatives for the race and gender enrichment" of the university. This plan, according to him, was basically a quota system for hiring more blacks and females. It also dealt with the appointment of "race and gender liaison persons" in each department - whom he referred to as "political commissars." He was so taken aback by these plans that he raised so much hell there at Tulane about them that the rules were eventually revised. He hasn't been the only white male college professor who has ever raised hell about being forced to surrender his academic freedom in order to accommodate curricular choices for purposes associated with political correctness. Lewis helped to found a Louisiana chapter of a long-established organization based in Princeton, New Jersey called The National Association of Scholars which serves to promote college faculty oppositions to excesses of multiculturalism and the replacement of traditional college courses with classes centered around race and gender issues. In other words, these highly educated and just-minded people got sick of being told that they had to be more politically correct in their teaching endeavors.
With matters as delicate and as political as those involved in the struggle to gain minority equality and representation, soundly proven, political tact and finesse must be practiced carefully. As I have explained, a majority cannot be told what to do by a minority. It can't be constantly and coarsely blamed for all its past wrongs in the area of minority relations and equity. And above all, it can't be forced to do anything. So far, we have seen that what results from this are backlashes which leave the door wide open in some places for the likes of David Duke. But a majority can be persuaded. It can be infiltrated and seduced. It can also be bargained with - after all, it's entirely cost/benefit in nature, and it's all give-and-take at the heart of every matter. Sacrifices must continue to be made on both sides if we're to get anywhere with the situation as it stands in America. If it is true that history repeats itself, we won't see an end to David Duke's brand of politics after he's gone for good, but that doesn't mean that we can't pool our resources to try to prevent it from reoccurring. Building up a tolerance to something is usually a slow process. If we're given enough time, we should be able to build up a fairly decent tolerance to all the racial inequity that is busy consuming us. Perhaps someday we'll get real lucky and start blending into a single race - I imagine we would all be tan complected with dark almond-shaped eyes and wavy dark hair. But, of course, that wouldn't put an end to all of our social problems, would it?
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