Auctioning Racism on eBay

ten little nigger boysThe descriptive tease on eBay calls the collector's edition of "Ten Little Nigger Boys and Ten Little Nigger Girls," a "really sweet little old book."

A print titled "Nigger in the Woodpile" is described as "adorable."

And an illustrated children's classic that features the comic antics of two children named "Neddy and Nellie Nigger" is called a "nice assortment of characters."

There are also approving teases for Bob's Uncle Little Nigger Boy Card Game, "Nigger" antique glass sets, moneyboxes, tobacco tins and racially offensive music scores, as well as the dozens of other similar items for sale on eBay. The fawning descriptive teases for these relics were not written decades ago, but by today's sellers.

This rogues' gallery of racially grotesque items dates mostly from pre-World War II days when racial slander, slurs and vilification of African-Americans were standard fare in America. There's nothing wrong with collectors privately selling and trading racially vile collectibles, and Nazi, Klan and Aryan Nation paraphernalia to each other, to antique houses or to museums. But their sale on eBay, which boasts that it is the world's online auction site, blatantly violates that company's own policy statement to "disallow" any material that promotes racial hatred, violence or intolerance. There is no eBay disclaimer or warning that these items are racially damaging.

Their presence on eBay, and the lack of an explanation as to why these offensive items have been banned from display in many schools and libraries, is less a damning indictment of America's odious racial past than a revealing showcase of current attitudes. A reexamination of that past reveals why the old racial stereotypes embodied in the array of racist books and collectibles on eBay stubbornly defy extinction. A few decades ago, newspapers and magazines had great fun ridiculing, lampooning and assailing blacks in articles and cartoons. Black people were branded as "lazy," "brutes," "savages," "imbeciles" and "moral degenerates."

Popular Science Monthly, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Medicine and the North American Review and other leading magazines chimed in with volumes of heady research papers, articles and scholarly opinions that claimed blacks were hopelessly inferior, crime and violence-prone defectives from which society had to be protected. A flood of racist, pseudo scholarly books such as "The Caucasian and the Negro in the United States," "The Negro Beast," "The Negro: A Menace to American Civilization" and Thomas Dixon's epic novel "The Clansman," purported to prove that blacks were inherently dangerous and mentally deformed, and that whites had to be defended from them at all costs.

Films of an earlier era such as "Rastus in Zululand," "Rastus and Chicken," "Pickaninnies" and "Watermelon and the Chicken" unabashedly visually mugged the black image. Then there were the high-art classics, "Birth of a Nation," that slavishly glorified the Ku Klux Klan and "Gone With the Wind" that promoted the phony Old South notion of blacks as eternally blissful, happy-go-lucky slaves. Both films are still shown regularly on Turner Movie Classics, at film festivals and in art houses, often with no explanation or discussion as to how they incited racial violence and perpetuated racial stereotypes.

With the passage of three civil rights bills, numerous affirmative action statutes, stacks of court decisions that guarantee civil rights and civil liberties protections and the spectacular rise of a prosperous and politically connected black middle class, the assumption was that America's ugly racial past had permanently been exorcised. But even if eBay did not sell and advertise a mountain of racist books, prints and collectibles, the old racial notions of black inferiority and menace have been sneakily recycled in other ways.

In the 1970s, a whole new vocabulary of covert racially loaded terms such as "law and order," "crime in the streets," "permissive society," "welfare cheats," "subculture of violence," "subculture of poverty," "culturally deprived" and "lack of family values" seeped into the language about blacks. Some politicians seeking to exploit white racial fears routinely tossed about these terms.

In the 1980s, terms such as "crime prone," "war zone," "gang infested," "crack plagued," "drug turfs," "drug zombies," "violence scarred," "ghetto outcasts" and "ghetto poverty syndrome" were introduced into public discourse. These were covert racial code phrases for blacks, and further reinforced the negative racial images.

eBay has ignored the pleas of many black eBay customers to honor its pledge to "disallow" racially vile items. And the sellers of these items, who regard them as cute and adorable, apparently have given little thought that many find them repugnant. This guarantees that the old racial stereotypes will never die.

Columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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