Sunday, March 16, 2008

History and Geraldine Ferraro

Just about everyone has already opined on Geraldine Ferraro's statements about Barack Obama's supposed race-based advantage in the current primary contest. I see no reason why I should be left out. Rather than rehash the whole chain of events, I'd like to propose a reading list for anyone (certainly including Ms. Ferraro) who is still a bit hazy as to the history of racism and slavery in this country. I do not claim that the list below is anywhere near exhaustive; time limitations preclude comprehensiveness, I'm afraid. What follows therefore, is a list of some of the most powerful and influential books on the subject. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in Comments.

A parade of evidence and book titles ran through my mind when I read and heard Ferraro's comments--facts and titles of which, I'm certain, Ferraro is (amazingly, at this point in our history) unaware.

Among those books are The Peculiar Institution, by Kenneth Stampp, a meticulously researched and dispassionately written explanation of the conditions and practices of slavery in the United States. This book (written in 1955) demolished the long existing pattern of rationalizations in defense of slavery within the American history profession. After this book was released, no knowledgeable person could honestly claim that slavery had been anything but an extraordinarily cynical economic enterprise dependent on the thoroughgoing dehumanization of one group of people by another.

Nor did emancipation eradicate the physical, social, political or psychological conditions of slavery. In fact, Reconstruction at best temporarily interrupted some of those factors in specific locations. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner, is a magisterial account of the gradual unraveling (under relentless pressure of unreconstructed former slaveholders and other bigots and opportunists) of efforts to establish legal and social equality for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.

After the secret bargain between Republicans and Democrats in the 1876 election, Rutherford B. Hayes became president and formally ended Reconstruction. What followed, a series of laws formalizing the legalized racial oppression of African Americans throughout the south know as Jim Crow, is outlined in C. Vann Woodward's The Strange Career of Jim Crow. This was the system that remained in place until the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965.

It is amazing to consider that only 45 years ago, black and white citizens of this country could not drink from the same water fountains, go to the same schools, ride the same buses, or live in the same neighborhoods; nor could black Americans even vote in many states. Nor has the bigotry underlying such laws disappeared from our society, although its expression continues to bubble, usually under the surface. If you doubt that, please try to explain honestly the obvious success of GOP campaign tactics such as the Willie Horton ad, and claims in the 2000 South Carolina primary that John McCain had supposedly fathered a black child. Then consider the murder of James Byrd a few years ago in Texas, and the consistent study results, year after year, showing clear evidence that black mortgage applicants and renters with the same credentials as white applicants are steered to "black" areas and "black" neighborhoods. See also the consistent study results showing that black job applicants with credentials identical to those of whites have their applications rejected at a much higher rate than the latter. And while we're at it, consider the various efforts by the GOP to repeal or limit the civil rights laws and their (allegedly) principled opposition to affirmative action.

Consider all of the above and try to convince me that Geraldine Ferraro's statements were not ignorant and/or perverse.

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