Whitewashing Black Heroes

It was pretty ugly there for awhile, what with all the white folk patting themselves on the backs after Tiger Woods won at Augusta. The orgy of self-congratulation was obscene, with people from coast to coast pointing out how decent and advanced America is now that a black man can win a golf tournament. With de facto segregation still the norm, it is hard to imagine anything being more beside the point than a golf tournament, yet the success of one black man there was presented as proof that full equality has been attained, that conservative fly-weight D'nesh D'Souza was correct when he declared The End of Racism.This is rather like the rags- to-riches stories from the turn of the century, which told the poor that a good work ethic might elevate them above the brutish condition that was their lot under the era's wanton capitalism. Those stories offered little but false hope to America's destitute workers, most of whom died in the same poverty into which they were born. Were rags-to-riches lives the rule rather than the exception these stories would never have existed: they were made up because there was a dearth of real-life examples to inspire workers to labor more efficiently at the spindles. They also were made up because false hope keeps class conflict off the agenda. The false hope offered to black America by the examples of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan serves the same function: it keeps race off the agenda and helps to ensure that blacks will feel guilty enough for their station that they won't clamor for any meaningful economic reforms.By far the worst thing I read on Woods' victory was the column by syndicated theocrat Cal Thomas. (The Star ran it 4/17) Thomas' column was probably the most despicable writing I've ever seen in the Star, no small feat considering the stiff competition from Rich Hood. For Cal Thomas, Woods' victory was a good excuse to trout out the right's hottest catch-phrases on the topic of race relations. Thomas said, for example, "Wood's victory was no triumph for affirmative action or quotas." Now, it's possible that Woods is willing to be conscripted into the anti-affirmative action crusade, but I'm guessing Thomas didn't bother to ask. Thomas penned another vile gem when he wrote "It is nice to see a man with dark skin who claims victory and not victimhoodÉ"Apparently Thomas is swallowing un-chewed the right-wing propaganda that says blacks are all whining about being victims. He should get out and visit the vast majority, who labor in relative silence against the merciless racial caste system that Thomas is doing so much to perpetuate. America would much rather send blacks to prison than to college; in America a child born with dark skin is still likely to be sentenced to a lifelong struggle of Sisyphean futility. Considering this, it is actually somewhat of a miracle that so few blacks ever play the victim card.Among all the repulsive tripe in Thomas' column, one bit stands out for being particularly despicable. Wood's victory, Thomas wrote, "was a testimony to the value of what hard work and dedication can do in any life because of the content of character, not the color of skin." The most obvious error here is the conflation of character and athletic prowess. The most egregious error is the appropriation of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.. I refer to the phrase "content of character, not the color of skin," which is lifted from King's justly famous "I have a Dream" speech from 1963. In that great speech King reached back to the Bible, to black spirituals, to the Declaration of Independence to fashion an eloquent and passionate vision of America's still-unrealized promise. King's speech remains the greatest expression of that promise since Lincoln went to Gettysburg 100 years earlier. "I have a dream," King told 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln memorial, "that my four little children will, one day, live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." I can think of no phrases with force sufficient to convey the offensiveness of seeing those words twisted and debased by someone with as pinched and shabby a soul as Cal Thomas'.Unfortunately, Thomas wasn't the first to debase those words and he probably won't be the last. Quoting King out of context is now part of the right's standard anti-affirmative- action drivel. The right uses these words in an attempt to prove that King would have been against affirmative action. Video of King pronouncing those words was even put into a television commercial last fall by the Republican proponents of California's Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action proposition that carried the euphemistic name, California Civil Rights Initiative. (King's words were removed from the commercial after his family threatened to sue.) The irony here is grotesque. Conservatives had no use for King when he was alive; they harassed him, called him a communist, and spied on him and then were glad to see him shot. And now they continue to abuse him, by making him into their hero, by claiming he would have believed in their cause, a cause against which he died fighting. There is no decency these unprincipled bastards wouldn't transgress in the pursuit of their goal of re-affirmed white supremacy. Their goal is as repulsive as their means are vile.

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