On race, more to come to grips with  

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, July 14, 2020

For an awful lot of white people — and a large number of black people as well — sitting down and talking face-to-face about race is about as welcome as having a root canal. You know it needs to be done, and it needs to be done now, but you sure do hate the thought.

If the past month has taught us anything at all, however, it is that we can no longer avoid a serious discussion of race in our society. The task is at hand, and if America — including Isle of Wight and Surry counties — is to truly embrace the equality of all mankind, then we must confront our racial divide.

To do so, we must first acknowledge that there is a problem — a complex, deeply rooted and at times seemingly intractable problem. And it’s tough to get there. I have heard so many times, from white friends and associates, all-too-familiar comments. They generally go something like this:

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Why do we keep bringing up race? Schools are integrated, you can eat where you want, go where you want. Everybody can vote. Besides, the country elected a black president. Doesn’t that prove that racism is a thing of the past?

Our response has to be that, no, racism has not disappeared. We have made significant progress, but we yet have far to travel.

My generation grew up in a segregated community — separate schools, largely separate communities, separate churches, separate cemeteries. Look at how many of those remain essentially the same today.

A longtime friend, also a native, commented recently that our hometown is almost as segregated today as it was 50 years ago. Another childhood friend, now living way from here, said that she has been embarrassed by racist comments heard in our community as recently as a few years ago.

There has always been racism in America. Slavery, as practiced here through the use of kidnapped Africans, could not have been perpetuated had it not been for white people deciding in their minds that blacks were not their equals. The entire culture that relied on slavery was undergirded by the belief that blacks were inherently inferior to whites.

When slavery ended, racial attitudes remained and even hardened in some ways. The South had always been socially hierarchical, and poor whites feared that blacks, the only people “beneath” them, would begin climbing and displace them. Meanwhile, a very influential segment of Southern society worked to enshrine “Old South” attitudes, including total segregation of the races. The “Lost Cause” myth of a pleasant plantation system in which masters were benevolent and slaves were universally happy was aimed at perpetuating the stratified Southern society that had existed prior to “The War.”

History books throughout the South included lengthy sections on the War Between the States, a title that was itself used to argue that the Civil War wasn’t insurrection, but rather just a disagreement between independent states that got out of control.

Those history books, from which all Virginians and other Southerners of my age were taught, told of pleasant evenings on the plantation where black people played music and danced, while their white masters listened, entranced.

Much of the mythical narrative was the work of a determined group of latter-day Southern belles who organized as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and effectively used their collective clout to influence textbooks and, significantly, build monuments to the heroes of their mythical Lost Cause.

While many white Southerners honestly view their courthouse “Johnny Reb” statues as tributes to ancestors who, they feel, fought to defend the southland rather than to perpetuate slavery, a look at the dedication programs associated with many of the statues clearly refutes that. While it is certainly true that public art can mean different things to different people, the truth is, the movement to erect statues throughout the South and beyond was designed to perpetuate the myth, and with it the Jim Crow society that was emerging at the same time the statues were being built.

The call to remove Confederate idols from the public square isn’t so much a call to rewrite history as it is to finally tell it more objectively and fully.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.